Ridiculous, Squared

Judge  James Booras of the 19th Circuit of Illinois is both tough and sensitive. Just not in the right order. Via the Chicago Tribune :

Robert Ritacca said that when Judge James Booras heard his client missed his curfew by 22 minutes, the judge immediately agreed to a request by Assistant State’s Attorney Danielle Pascucci and raised the defendant’s bond.

“Raising bond” is a relative phrase. What Judge Booras did was raise bond from $2,000 to $75,000.  Ritacca explained that the defendant was 22 minutes late because his ride had been late. This would certainly justify a stern lecture about responsibility, as it was the defendant’s to be home by curfew regardless of whether his ride is late.  “Never cut it so close again, or you’re going to jail,” would seem appropriate.

Robert Ritacca didn’t take the increase well.

Ritacca said later that he told the judge that he thought the bond ruling was “ridiculous” — at which point the judge ruled that Ritacca was in contempt of court and fined him $500.

“So I said that’s also ridiculous, and they took me into custody,” Ritacca said.

Is it contumacious to call a judge’s ruling ridiculous? What about when it is ridiculous? Or would “outrageous” have been a better choice?  While the choice of words may not have been particularly persuasive in getting the judge to see that his ruling was, oh, less than justified, not every ruling, particularly ones that do grave and wholly unwarranted harm to a client, is met with “thank you, your honor.”

Booras then raised Ritacca’s fine to $1,000 and his client’s bond to $150,000, though Pascucci said the bond was raised to $200,000.

Pascucci said Ritacca “had his voice raised,” was being “disrespectful” and was “flailing his arms.”

There are limited choices available to defense counsel when something as absurd and wrong as this occurs. That’s not to say that venting one’s frustration and anger is necessarily the right choice, but sometimes it’s the only option available when something truly ridiculous occurs.  Plan B is to stand there, do nothing, and watch as they lead the defendant away in cuffs. Not particularly effective either. There is a habeas corpus, but even when it produces the correct result, days will have passed with the defendant in jail. The legal system has yet to figure out how to give a person those lost days back.

Robert Ritacca was no spring chicken, which no doubt contributed to his decision not to stand there like a deer in the headlights.

The Waukegan-based Ritacca, who said he has been an attorney for 33 years, said he was in custody for about 30 minutes.

“There is no contempt,” Ritacca said. “You don’t put lawyers in jail for arguing for their client.”

Not exactly. What I believe Ritacca means is that the judge shouldn’t put lawyers in jail for arguing for their client, even if the argument hurts the judge’s feelings by suggesting that he was less than a brilliant jurist for ruling the way he did.  Notably, Judge Booras later reduced the defendant’s bail to the originally ridiculous $75,000, apparently after he calmed down a bit.  After all, $150,000 was ridiculous.

That Ritacca’s calling the bond increase “ridiculous” may not have been effective isn’t the measure of valid argument. Criminal defense lawyers commonly make arguments that don’t prevail. It’s the nature of being on the wrong side of the room. But it doesn’t mean you don’t try to make a point, to fight.  Would it have been better had he framed his outrage in more judicious language? Perhaps, but that doesn’t make the word “ridiculous” less of an appropriate characterization. 

While the article doesn’t say, he may well have tried to argue the point as being unduly punitive and unjustified by the cause of the 22 minute breach. He may well have contended that his client shared the court’s concern and was deeply distressed by the inability to make it back in time for curfew.  He may have expressed his client’s lesson in relying on someone who wasn’t sufficiently reliable, and cutting it much too close. An error in judgement by the defendant. Criminal defendants do that sometimes, without meaning any disrespect to the court or evincing any intent to defy the terms of the bond.

But Judge Booras’ reaction to the word “ridiculous” reflected a lack of judicial temperament, an improperly delicate sensitivity to disagreement with his ruling.  Just as defense counsel have to get used to their arguments being rejected, judges have to be tough enough to have their rulings disputed. Even special little snowflakes in robes.

If Judge Booras didn’t appreciate Ritacca’s characterization of the bond increase as ridiculous, the solution is not to make ridiculous bond increases. This increase was not merely wrong, but outrageous.

As for Robert Ritacca, his willingness to challenge such an outrageous bond increase reflects the highest calling of a criminal defense lawyer, not to let his client get taken into custody without a fight.  There are no shortage of lawyers who can easily rationalize why they wouldn’t put themselves at risk on behalf of a client by pushing the envelope like this, but there are some who are bold enough and take the duty seriously enough to take a risk.  Ask yourself which type of lawyer you are.

If I had a medal to give, one would go out to Robert Ritacca. And if you don’t have the stones to do what he did, ask yourself why?

H/T FritzMuffKnuckle

2 thoughts on “Ridiculous, Squared

  1. Neil Stout

    Early in my career the outstanding attorney David Baugh told me that if I wasn’t willing to go to jail to protect a client’s rights then I needed to be in another line of work. Later that same day I got tossed in jail for contempt for refusing to accept appointment of a case where the same Mr. Buagh had just been jailed for contempt, and the judge wanted me to simply walk up to the bench and begin my defense in the middle of this guy’s misdemeanor trial. Two other lawyers were jailed after me for the same reason before the judge (who is now a circuit court “jurist”) vacated everything and let us all out and found the guy not guilty. I did not then, nor in later circumstances, feel that I did anything other than what was my job. A comedian once observed that you should not get a medal for staying out of jail, providing for your family, etc., because it’s your job. I think the same thing applies here, in reverse.

  2. SHG

    If you don’t see it as an occupational hazard, then it’s the wrong occupation.  Not that anyone should want to go to jail, but if that’s what comes of doing your duty, so be it.

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