For All Nails #70: "Call Me Judge Lancito"

by David Mix Barrington

Simi Valley District Courthouse
Puerto Hancock, FN1 California, USM
9 October 1973

Bobby Contreras was a distracted man. This court hearing he was attending was potentially vital to his father's hopes of remaining in the USM and continuing to do business. The plaintiff's attorney, the love of his life, was making her first appearance in a real courtroom. If he wanted to think about something else, he had a midterm exam to write and a lecture on multiplication circuits to give the next day at MIT. FN2 But here he was, thinking about his girlfriend's shoulders.

When he'd first met Anna at that dinner in Palo Alto over a year ago, she'd been wearing a black halter-top dress that had shown all of her beautiful shoulders and much of her equally beautiful back. As a student at PMU she'd quickly adapted to California fashions -- sundresses with string straps or even no straps, even once or twice a tight "Tania-top" showing her navel as well, like one of Tania Monroy's many teenaged imitators. Bobby had almost forgotten that the CNA had different dress standards (never mentioned, but never violated). A respectable North American woman bared her shoulders on the beach, in an evening dress, or in bed -- nowhere else.

Bobby had missed Anna's shoulders during their three weeks' summer visit to the CNA. To be honest, the CNA standard that had bothered him more at the time was that a respectable engaged couple there did not share a hotel room as they would in Mexico. (He had never heard the saying "Why would he buy the cow if he can get the milk for free?" in Mexico, but every CNA daughter seemed to have heard it from her mother. Fortunately many Champlain coeds hadn't listened to their mothers...) Only one time had Anna risked her reputation, quietly knocking on the door of Bobby's room at three in the morning, almost tearing his clothes off, making some of the best love they'd ever had, and sneaking back to her own room, all without saying a word. Lucky they hadn't had to suddenly advance their wedding plans after that, since Anna had never taken to La Pildora...

Today Anna's shoulders were covered by a long-sleeved tailored shirt and a bolero-style vest that matched her long skirt. Bobby had never actually seen a Mexican abogada in the flesh, but the ones in the vitanovelas dressed rather aggressively -- short skirts, high heels, sleeveless silk tops under jackets. Anna looked more like a little girl dressing as a great lady than like an abogada. No, that wasn't fair -- she looked like a Mexican coed, accustomed to cotton shirts and blue jeans, suddenly told to look businesslike for an interview. Her shoulder-length hair was up in a bun, prepared for the legal wig she'd be wearing in a North American courtroom. Had it even occurred to her why she had decided to put it up?

If this legal battle were a fashion contest, then, Anna would be outmatched. Her opponent was wearing a very nice three-piece Buenos Aires suit -- Bobby priced it at five thousand dolares off the rack, maybe ten thousand tailored. A nice Beretta watch as well. Mexican abogados knew how to dress, that was for sure. He suppressed the slew of lawyer-as-Platonist jokes that immediately came to mind, and took a closer look at this guy. A definite look of Somebody's Nephew, he decided. You couldn't be sure without hearing him talk, of course, but the FCS just might have sent an unarmed man into a battle of wits. And that, Bobby thought without any loyal exaggeration, was a battle to which his girlfriend came loaded for bear.

"All rise! The District Court of the State of California in and for the County of Hancock is now in session. Judge Jefferson Lanza presiding!"

The judge was short, about five foot three, Hispano-looking with perhaps a trace of Asian features. Anna had judge-shopped very carefully and had been overjoyed to get this man. All Mexican judges were independent -- the members of each bench filled their own vacancies with only a minimum of input from elected state officials. But Lanza, Anna had said, was an independent among independents, who just might have the guts to take on the War Department.

"Call the first case, please, Conrad."

"Yes, sir! Number 436, Contreras Machine Tools of California versus Federal Customs Service!"


"Anna DiMaggio for the plaintiff, Judge." She'd said that it would be hard to keep to the Mexican honorific and avoid the CNA's "Your Honor" or even "My Lord", which would not go over well. A long adolescence of imagining herself arguing before the Supreme Law Lords had its effects...

"John Marshall Clark for the People, Judge."


"You're objecting to his name?" What was she doing?

"No, Judge, but if I'm not mistaken "the People" in this court refers to the State of California, as represented by a duly sworn State's Attorney. While I'm sure my opponent has the People's interests at heart, as do I--"?

"This is nonsense, Judge, it's petty harassment and I object." Ha! Bobby concluded that this Clark was an idiot. Anna had taken a calculated risk in annoying the judge. But apparently her plan was to bait the Nephew into annoying the judge even more, and the Nephew was cooperating fully.

"Exactly who are you representing, for the record, Counselor?"

"The Federal Customs Service of the United States of Mexico, Judge."

"So that's settled then -- let's get on with it. Miss DiMaggio?"

"Your-- Judge, I represent Contreras Machine Tools of California, a division of a nationwide firm that produces capital goods for the oil industry. The firm's branch in Jefferson has been accused by the Federal Customs service of violations of several provisions of the Export Code involving sale of drilling tubes to private firms in the CNA. We are vigorously contesting these charges and they are now before the Federal Court of Borders, Customs, and Immigration in Henrytown."

"If they're before another court, what are we talking about here?"

"Judge, the Customs Service has acted to freeze the operations of the California branch of Mr. Contreras' business, which is not even a party to the customs action in Jefferson."

"It's a single company, Judge, a single criminal enterprise under the direction--"

"You'll have your turn, Mr. Clark. What's the statutory basis of this seizure?"

"That's the point, Judge, there isn't any. Their claim, as I understand it, is that an internal order of the Customs Service gives them the authority to act here in California without any judicial process at all. I'm asking for a state restraining order against the seizure pending the resolution of the case. Otherwise they are carrying out a sentence before there's even been a verdict."

"Mr. Clark?"

"Judge, this is a simple matter of national security, which is the province of the Customs Service as a division of the War Department. There's no jurisdiction of a state court in a Federal matter, particularly when we're dealing with a corporate combine that crosses state lines."

"Well, Miss DiMaggio?"

"Judge, the Federal court system has jurisdiction over this matter if it chooses to exercise it, but so far it has not done so. In the meantime, the Basic Statute empowers the courts of California to safeguard the life, liberty, and property of all Mexican citizens in the state. That includes Mr. Contreras' property, the interest of his employees in the smooth operation of his business, and even the property of the corporation itself under United Dry Goods v. Corporate Malfeasance Commission, 1937--"

"That's silly, judge. She's saying that even if an enemy criminal flees the country from Jefferson, we can't seize his ill-gotten booty in California. But the Enemy Assets Act says--"

"The Enemy Assets Act of 1951 is a statute, Judge. By Delaney v. Hoffman, 1967, Mr. Justice Denton writing for a unanimous Mexico Tribunal. All Presidential and War Department decrees of the Emergency of 1950 to 1965 are retroactively given the force of acts of Congress. So when you seize something under the Enemy Assets Act, you're following the Constitution and the rule of law. Besides, you still need a hearing before a military tribunal."

"Your client will be finding out about that pretty soon, chica. Maybe you will too."

"That may be. But my point is that those seizures are legal proceedings. What we've got here is an administrative ruling of a federal agency claiming consequences as to the state-protected property rights of various California citizens, both individual and corporate. Without any statutary basis whatsoever."

"And you want me to stay the War Department with a restraining order."

"Yes, Judge. Let CMTC carry on its business until or unless the federal proceeding in Jefferson comes to a conclusion that would warrant a seizure."

"Judge, that would be a California court intervening in a matter of national security, against all precedent."

"Well, this is all very interesting. I think we have enough to hear full oral and written argument -- say, sometime next week? Conrad?"

"Thursday the 18th is open, Judge, 9:00."

"Fine. I'll hear this at 9:00 on the 18th. Something else, Miss DiMaggio?"

"Yes, Judge. I'm a little worried about what happens before the 18th -- is it your ruling that the seizure is suspended until then?"

"Judge, that would let them loot the assets of the company completely, transfer them to Jefferson or the CNA or who knows where!"

"Perhaps a special master of some sort, Judge? To let us carry out normal business but not 'loot our assets'?"

"That's quite reasonable. The Customs Service is hereby enjoined from any action against your client today, and I'll have a special master appointed before tomorrow morning. We're adjourned. Miss DiMaggio, I'll see you in my chambers in five minutes?"

"Um, of course, Judge, um, just me?"

"Did I mention anyone else?"

"Um, no, Your- Judge, but--"

"Five minutes then. Conrad?"

"All rise!"

Bobby stood and moved forward through the crowd to the edge of the gallery. Anna pulled her papers together.

"That went well, I thought?"

"I don't know until I hear what he wants in chambers. The special master is good, that should keep them from any funny business, and he wouldn't have bothered if he thought I was completely off my wicket. I hope nine days isn't enough time for them to find a real lawyer, though."

"But aren't you right on the law?"

"Of course I am, Bobby, but who knows whether the law is right on the law? Right now, the law is Judge Jefferson Lanza. Which is better than it being Vincent Mercator, sure, but how long is that going to be true?"

Judge Jefferson Lanza was a troubled man. This case could lead to no end of trouble, with him smack in the middle of it. He was proud to be part of an independent judiciary, but remaining independent meant knowing where the limits of your real power were, and staying within them. Most of the time. Until it was time to test the limits. Was this the time, and more importantly, was he the man to test them?

Who was this little girl, anyway? She'd never practiced in PH before, as far as he knew. Must be just out of law school, given her age and the way she threw precedents around. Though any fool could pass the bar exam in this state -- look at the clown that the Customs Service had come up with. Ah, here she was now...

"Judge Lanza?"

"Miss DiMaggio, come in. Call me Judge Lancito FN3 -- everyone does, outside of court. May I get you a beer? Wine?"

"Um, a small glass of wine, thank you." Lancito poured the wine from a cut-glass decanter and pulled a beer for himself out of a small cooler. He opened the beer against the side of the table and sat back down with his feet on the desk.

"Um, Judge Lancito, is it even proper for me to be talking to you without my opponent here?" She was from the CNA! That began to explain things, starting with that funny accent.

"Perfectly proper under our procedure, Miss DiMaggio. Though some judges might insist on a chaperon to meet alone with a woman as young and attractive as yourself. No, the state trusts me to make up my own mind whether I talk to counsel singly, both at once, or not at all. I'm the one who has to write up the opinion in the end. So if you feel personally safe with me, then I don't see a problem, do you?"

"Well, no, Judge, you're the judge, uh, so to speak--"

"I understand they do things a bit differently in North America. Which is where you came from, if I read your accent correctly -- New Orleans?"

"Why, yes, Judge, born and raised there."

"And how long did you practice on that side?"

"Uh, not at all, Judge. I got my law degree at UNO and then came over here for a scholarship at PMU. I passed the California bar last June, but I can't practice in the CNA." Not likely, he thought, given the clubbiness of the CNA barristers. From what he had heard, a Catholic man would have trouble getting admitted to the bar there unless his accent was as cultured as Carter Monaghan's...

"How many cases have you argued upstate?"

"Uh, none, Judge, this is my first. I've drawn up the papers for a small corporation but haven't litigated anything until now."

"So you just thought you'd take on the War Department for your first case? How much do you know about Mexico?"

"Quite a lot about the history, Judge, I'm writing a book on Jackson and Theodore. The current political situation I don't really understand, but it doesn't look to me like anyone else really understands it either."

That was about right, he thought. The President led his Administration, and the Secretary of War led an almost parallel Administration. Under Dominguez it had been reasonably clear that the President really worked for the Secretary, but where El Popo was concerned nothing was reasonably clear...

"There's something about this case that I don't understand myself. What does the Customs Service really want with your client? Bribes for individual inspectors?"

"No, Judge, with respect, we tried that, and someone just seems to want to hurt Mr. Contreras personally. It seems to have something to do with some of the work he did for the President in the '71 campaign, but we don't really know who's pushing the buttons, or why. Believe me, we've tried to figure it out."

"Mm-hmm. Such things do happen on occasion. It's never good to have enemies, if you can avoid it. Somehow the struggles between the big fish always wind up with some littler fish getting hurt. I hope you're being careful yourself -- you're rather young to be burning any bridges, aren't you?" There was a blacklist of lawyers, he knew, lawyers who had crossed the wrong people. They had a lot of trouble finding work...

"Well, I'm not wedded to the idea of litigating all my life, if that's what you mean. I want to write books, and run a business, and maybe practice law, and raise a family, and God knows what else. But I had to take this case, Judge Lancito. First of all, there's an innocent man whose life could be ruined here. Second, that innocent man's going to be my father-in-law before long."

"Oh ho! Congratulations."

"Thank you. Bobby, Mr. Contreras' son, he's a professor at PMU. That business I mentioned, Pomona Calculators--"

"Pomona? You make those calcs that you have to put together yourself?"

"Yes, that's it."

"Conrad bought one of those -- he loves it! Every day he's all hot about something new he's figured out how to do. Are you selling a lot of them?"

"In Mexico, yes, all the electrical hobbyists FN4 want them -- we had to hire twenty people to put together the packages and mail them out. We could sell a lot more across the line, but--"

"Export regulations."

"Exactly. Judge Lancito, have you really looked at those regulations? Under the FCS's interpretations, they can find a violation with absolutely any export to the CNA, and nearly anything to any other country. If you read the statute sensibly, it's a little better, but not much. We can't risk sending even a machine screw out of Mexico, not with the FCS looking for a way to hurt Bobby's dad through us."

"It must be an interesting case in Henrytown."

"That it is. I think we've got a good chance of an acquittal or at least a hung jury. I have a lot of confidence in Mexican juries, actually, to use common sense. If there was no way for Mr. Contreras to follow the law, then how can you punish him for breaking it?"

"That bill in the last session of Congress would have simplified your case somewhat, though."

"Right, if the law he violated was already superseded. But of course the Progressives had to drop that bill at the end, and not one of the ten others." FN5

"There's an argument to be made, of course, that Congress has decided, and the Federal court in Henrytown is going to decide, so why should one state judge and a district judge at that--"

"With respect, Judge Lancito? General Jackson and Colonel Theodore have a lot more confidence in you than that. You're the initial finder of fact, because in this case you're the first part of the whole system to get the facts of this case. Once you've made a decision, then the rest of the system can argue about whether you're right on the law, but you decide what's right on the facts. That's how the Basic Statute has it, in black and white."

"I'm a big fan of the Basic Statute as well, Miss DiMaggio. How does a North American come to have such strong feelings about it?" The enthusiasm of a convert, he thought. Touching, but naive. There was judicial independence, and judicial suicide -- the trick was to walk the line between them...

"Well, as I said, I'm writing this book on the Mexican legal system. It's been through so much, and it still works, because the most important rules are written down, and independent judges have let it evolve to meet all the new things that have happened but still stay the same system."

"In some ways, Miss DiMaggio, in some ways. You realize, of course, that even if you win this case, and win in Henrytown, that won't be the end of it?"

"Oh, I know that. It only takes one decision the wrong way, and Mr. Contreras loses everything. Everything in Mexico, that is, I don't think he'll starve in exile wherever he goes. But that's not really the point."

"It isn't?"

"No, it's like I said. The legal system will endure, probably long after we're all dead, including the President and the Secretary. Your decision, whatever it is, will be written down. If it gets overruled for the wrong reasons, those reasons are written down. Sometime years from now, maybe a judge will decide that you were right after all. In the long run, the system usually gets to a sensible decision."

"You raise an interesting issue." Very interesting. Damn. The smart thing to do was obvious -- use any excuse to get the hell away from this case. But she was right. If the right facts and the right law weren't written down now, they would never be written down for this case. Damn. Fortunately, he was a judge. And the one thing the system gave him was time to make up his mind.

"I'll be very interested in your oral and written argument next week."

"Thank you very much, Judge Lancito, I'm looking forward to it myself."

"Oh, one bit of friendly advice, Miss DiMaggio?"

"Yes, Judge Lancito?"

"You might not want to stress United Dry Goods the next time around."

"Really? But it's settled law -- that's where it's settled that a corporation has property rights in California law--"

"Did you read the whole case? United was a Kramer front, being sued by Fuentes' boys. The courts stopped the government from regulating Kramer the way it wanted."


"And for better or worse, your opponent is going to argue that you're part of a Kramer conspiracy to sell out Mexico. FN6 I can make of that argument what I will, but there will be other courts. You might not want to give your appellate opponent any more ammunition."

"Hmm. Thank you, Judge, I'll keep that in mind."

"Thank you for your time, Miss DiMaggio. I look forward to an interesting case." How did that Fukienese curse go? 'May you live in interesting times?' Life in Mexico was getting more interesting all the time...

Forward to FAN #71: Southern Exposure.

Forward to 13 November 1973: Academic Discourse.

Forward to Contreras Family: Scenes From a Wedding.

Forward to USM Politics: The Osterman Weekday.

Return to For All Nails.