Bill Bassett’s “War Story”: It ain’t over ’til it’s over!

Bill Bassett’s “War Story”: It ain’t over ’til it’s over!

General transactional lawyer and SynerG member Bill Bassett shared this “SynerG War Story” about learning the difference between “recess” and “adjournment” the hard way back in his litigation days:  Back in 1973, as a sole practitioner, I had just started representing the Atlanta Regional Commission, a newly created governmental planning agency, charged with enforcing the Metropolitan River Protection Act. The Act prohibited building new structures within the Chattahoochee River corridor. A property owner had applied to Fulton County for a permit to build a tennis court within the prohibited area. Fulton County intended to issue the permit in spite of the restriction. ARC brought suit to enforce the Act and applied for a temporary restraining order prohibiting the county from issuing the permit. The hearing was before an old school Superior Court Judge, a known curmudgeon, who had been on the bench for many years. He had a history of issuing irregular judicial orders, and was very unpredictable. The County’s defense was that the Act was unconstitutional, as being violative of private property rights.

At about 6:30, after arguing all afternoon, I pointed out that Georgia law requires that if a litigant maintains a statute is unconstitutional, the attorney general has to be notified, and allowed to intervene and defend the statute.
As an aside, in this particular judge’s courtroom, the judge’s bench extended all the way across the courtroom, from one wall to the other. He could move his chair behind the bench from one side of the room to the other, and often did. During counsel’s arguments, when he leaned back in his chair, he often disappeared, and you found yourself addressing him at one end of the bench, while he reappeared at the other.

After raising the issue about notifying the attorney general, the judge disappeared behind the bench. We waited and waited, and finally the judge’s clerk let us know the judge was in his chambers researching the law. Finally the judge reappeared. He stated that he had studied the law, and it appeared that the attorney general may have to be notified. We discussed the method of notification and other issues. He said he would study it some more and make a final decision in the morning. Then he promptly left the bench.

Bob Young, who was the county attorney, and a good guy, and I just looked at each other. We both assumed we were through for the day.

My client and I decided we would get some libations at the Kimball House Saloon, a prominent drinking establishment on Decatur Street near the courthouse, and make our plans for the next day. Before leaving, I called my office and was told that a bench warrant had been issued for my arrest! The Fulton County sheriff (court bailiff) had called and said the judge had come back on the bench after we left, found we were not there, and had handwritten (on a yellow pad) a bench warrant for my arrest, ordering the sheriff to find me and bring me back to the courtroom. Apparently, the judge had not adjourned for the night after all. I called the sheriff’s office, confirmed it, and said I would be right there.

But since I had had the libations, I decided I had best find some breath mints, before making my appearance. I chewed the entire pack. When I got to the courthouse the bailiff advised that my best defense would be to plead ignorance.

Bob was there by then, so we went to the courtroom with the bailiff. It was about 8 PM by then. I followed the bailiff’s advice and profusely apologized to the judge for leaving before being dismissed. Surprisingly, the judge had mellowed by then. He said he had reconvened court in order to ask counsel if either of them had any financial interest in the case. We said no. He then explained the difference between “recess” and “adjournment”, and then promptly “adjourned” court.

The lesson I learned is “it ain’t over ’til it’s over”!

William R. Bassett, Bill has a general civil practice limited to transactional matters., SynerG Member since July of 2018,

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