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The Vulcan Salute

The court system is a very strange place. Too often people put themselves inside it when they have no business being there. They start out all revved up about righting some perceived injustice. But they quickly discover that they have just placed their foot on the first step down into Hades and they cannot back out. They’d be much better off steering clear of the courts altogether.

Many years ago, I had an odd encounter when I was clerking for a federal judge in Portland, just after I graduated from law school. The Portland federal courthouse in those days had nothing like the security the courthouses now have. Anyone could get inside the courthouse and walk right up to the door of the judge’s chambers, if so inclined. The door to our chambers was kept locked, though. There was a camera and an intercom system just outside the door. Visitors had to push the buzzer to connect with the judge’s secretary before she would admit them through the door. The secretary was a formidable old battleaxe, who disliked me and all other pipsqueak law clerks something fierce. But the whole security set up was nothing that a determined nutjob could not have gotten past if he was bent on getting revenge against the judge.

There weren’t many people who actually bothered trying to be admitted to chambers. But we did get a regular visitor to the checkpoint right outside the door. Every month or so an older looking gentleman would show up. He was always dressed neatly but he was clearly not quite all there mentally. He would walk up to the security camera and, without pushing the buzzer to connect on the intercom, he would hold up a hand-written piece of paper. He would stand there for maybe 15 minutes, holding his paper up to the security camera. If he stood there too long, the battleaxe would call someone to come up from the clerk’s office to get rid of him, but he would always wander off before anyone actually showed up to escort him out.

One day curiosity got the better of me. After the guy had been standing there with his paper up to the camera for maybe 15 minutes, I went out to see what this fellow was all about. The battleaxe growled at me but I went out nonetheless. The guy was turning to leave just as I walked out the door. He was shocked to see me; it must have been like one of the gods had just descended from Olympus to mingle with the mortals.

“Can I help you?” I asked. The guy stared at me all wide-eyed and held out his piece of paper. I looked at it but I couldn’t make out what it was trying to say. The words were in English but they made no sense at all.

“I don’t understand,” I said. He started talking in a strange language that I had never heard before. “Prosim zabramit mi,” he said. It could have been Czech or another Slavic tongue, but to me it made as much sense as Klingon.

He gestured emphatically to the paper. “Prosim zabramit mi!” And he held it up in front of my face. The old battleaxe, who had been watching on the security camera, barked over the intercom: “I’m calling the U.S. Marshal!”

The guy seemed harmless enough so I didn’t want to see him dragged away in handcuffs. I put my hand on his shoulder and lead him back down the hallway to the elevator. As we were waiting for the elevator to show up, he was jabbering away in that strange lingo of his.

The elevator arrived finally and I gently nudged him into it. He held up the paper to my face again, through the open door. Right then it occured to me that this guy just wanted someone to hear about his plight. He had a grievance and he wanted to petition the government for redress, just like it says in the Constitution. He thought that holding the paper up to the camera was the way you asked for relief from the court.

spock_giving_vulcan_salute_286x215.jpg As the door started to close I said to him: “Sir, we have heard your complaint and we will look into it.” I gave him the Vulcan salute that Mr. Spock used on Star Trek. The guy put his hands down and, as the door closed, he smiled so brightly it was like a Roman candle went off in that elevator car.

The guy never showed up outside our chambers again. I guess he was content that his grievance had been heard, whatever it was. And, although I couldn’t be sure, it kind of seemed like the old battleaxe was just a wee bit nicer to me afterwards.

Now when I have clients who are bound and determined to file a lawsuit and sue the evil snakes on the other side, I always caution them about getting in over their heads. I’m also tempted to take them over to the courthouse and have them just tell their tale to one of the security cameras there, instead of actually filing a lawsuit. They would probably feel better afterwards and in most cases it would save them a lot of money and anguish in the long run.

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Read up on the Czech language here.

You can buy a Klingon dictionary and other useless stuff through the Klingon Language Institute.

The U.S. Marshals Service has its own website with a lot of interesting things on it, including their “Most Wanted” list. And don’t try to sneak a cell phone past them at the federal courthouse because they still have the legal authority to form a posse to hunt down outlaws.