There is no passion in divorce court. People talk in muffled voices and more with deliberation. It is a place where nearly everything happens on paper. Yet if you listen, you find chaos just beneath the surface: the shouting and screaming, the slamming of doors, the slaps, the furious departures and frozen silences of marriages gone wrong.
Courtroom clerk Carl White, slim and dapper, strides into No. 39, Domestic Relations branch, D.C. Superior Court. Behind him, Judge Richard R. Atkinson, 73, solid and short, black robe flowing.
"Good morning," the judge says.Room is comfortable intimate, blue walls, cream ceiling, groined, with old gaslight stubs. Four rows wooden pews. Vacant jury box, cream leather chair backs.
First case: Maria vs. Ricardo Ramirez (all names of litigants changed). Lawyer impressively announces this Ricardo's first time in any court, his whole life.
"Welcome," says judge. "Now, what is the issue?"
Issue is support. He hasn't paid lately. His job as maintenance supervisor about to end. Earns $860. "Two weeks or a month?" "Monthly salary, your honor. But he's gonna lose the contract . . ."
Judge: "I deal with the present, not the future. What can you pay for support?"
"A hundred dollars, I usually pay." Ricardo wears faded sweater, stands at lawyer's side. Maria keeps glancing him sidelong, across lawyers. He ignores her. In pew three kids sit, very still, big-eyed.
Judge asks lawyers to get together out of court. "A big fat order," he mutters, "can be the source of much litigation - and no money." They go out; kids stay.
Next case: stout, prosperous couple. Issue is money. It always is. Technical problem: lot of whispering. Clerks talks on phone inaudibly. Expert at this; a skill you develop after years in courtroom or city council chambers. Court reporter Doug MacQuown waits, long tapered fingers resting on little stenograph keyboard. Lawyers, judge mumble together. Couple finally leaves, wordlessly, separately, with lawyers.
First case again: Maria on stand, pretty, neatly dressed. Translator, young woman, sworn in, too. Lawyer looks like Clarence Darrow. Maria has three children? Ages 10, 11, 12? "Yes," she says. Surprise. We expected "Si."
They live in her Maryland apartment; she makes $117.50 a week as housekepper. No money from him since summer. June he sent $100, July $25, then no more. She says "Yes" to every question, has to be asked again in Spanish. She steps down, Ricardo goes up. They pass close to each other. No sign.
He sends money to mother and son in San Salvador, also daughter in San Francisco. Also going to Montgomery County College, pays $107 per semester. Rent $250. Judge wants to know more about this: It's an apartment, two rooms and kitchen, lives alone. Has '72 VW bug, costing $87 monthly. Also personal loan of $500.
"You have a stereo, don't you?" asks opposing lawyer.
"No, sir." Perplexed.
"All right," says judge at last, "who wants to make a two-minute speech?" Lawyers sum up. Judge: "Somebody's got to tell him he can't afford those kind of places. The court will vacate the present order and order the sum of $150 - $75 payable each two weeks to the clerk's office of this court. Financial review every 90 days."
Previous order had him paying $200. Everyone seems satisfied. Ricardo starts to leave courtroom. Kids pile out of pew to follow him, hestitate in confusion, stop. No words. Kids grin at him, then glance a question back at mother. She smiles coolly. At them, not at him. Now he's gone, and now they can leave.
11:15 a.m. Judge calls recess. "Everyone rise."
Courtroom on ground floor of Pension Building, old red brick pile with frieze of Civil War soldiers marching around it forever. Fantastic place: three balconies all around, clerestory windows, skylights, eight gigantic Corinthian pillars 10 feet diameter. Could be prison in decadent Central American republic. Everything yellow. Huge empty floor carpeted, color doubtless entitled Venetian Gold but frankly more on order of Caca Jaune. (Infant excrement if you must know.) Little black dots everywhere: cigarette burns.
Jackson vs. Jackson: handsome young people with bush hairdos. Doreen a legal secretary, Ernest a laborer. Her lawyer very young redhead from legal clinic; his a grizzled old pro. Papers everywhere: yellow pads, legal documents rolled back around the top, manila folders. People handling paper constantly. In pew, thick-spectacled man laboriously reads brief held one inch from eyes; head searches back and forth across paper.
"We separated in '66,"Doreen testifies. "I left. There were things happening in our marriage my husband couldn't cope with and I had to leave . . ."
Married in '63 in Washington; two sons, 13 and 10. ". . . At one time we considered going back together, but now, to my knowledge, he don't want to get together. We talked about it twice in the last two years."
Her childhood friend takes stand to corroborate that couple truly gone their separate ways.
One child has dyslexia; she explains this to judge. Ernest makes $132 weekly, agrees to pay $125 monthly support. Wants it on weekly basis of $31.25.
Very young lawyer: "She wants to change her name. Wants her maiden name."
Judge Atkinson sits up, scowls. "We have to think of the children . . . I'm thinking in the best interests of the children. Her maiden names makes no difference to me . . . They know Momma in her name, and Momma spells home and comfort. You have Momma coming home with another name, it'll confuse 'em."
Lawyer rolls with punch, changes subject. But plaintiff herself - plaintiffs always the wives - brings it up again. Judge drifts into long anecdote about laboratory demonstration seen on TV. Monkeys and artificial mother. "Whether you love the name Jackson or not, the children love Jackson because that's their name." Grants divorce on grounds of voluntary separation, denies request for changing name.
During break he had talked about his work. "You've got to use common sense in there, it's not just a legalistic thing. You use your mother wit." He was appointed judge by LBJ in '66, retired last December, is waiting replacement. Distinguished career. Father was Georgia farmer, rural mail carrier.
Nelson case: Dorothy's there, but where is James? His lawyer turns out to be thick-spectacled guy. Sleek, elegant in Brooks Brothers suit, vest. Hair combed back; skin cafe au lait.
"He had to go to the hospital, your honor. To get medication. His mother said he had to leave the house. He has a head injury from an accident on the job three years ago."
Dorothy's lawyer something special: lean, loose-jointed. Seamed, gaunt face, untamed white hair. Cowboy boots. Cross between John Huston, Jason Robards. Eyes very bright, alert. Jumps up. Angry. Voice shatters hush of courtroom.
"We've been here a number of times, your honor . . She's got a minor child, and no money . . . This man's drawing all kinds of money and hasn't paid a cent of it for support of the child. She took a day off today . . ."
Judge: "Well, I can't try him in absentia."
James' lawyer says the man twice had seizures in his office and had to have ambulance. Says was told his case might come up today. Trying to reach him. Called hospital.
Dorothy: "Lotta times he calls me to take him to the hospital, and I get over there to his place and he's gone."
Judge: "The bottle?"
She doesn't want to take off another day. "The post office doesn't play that way."
Judge: "The court doesn't either." He adjourns at 1:45 so they can try and find James.
Two o'clock. Judge not back yet. Silence. Ventilator hums. Two lawyers whisper. White, quietly efficient, ubiquitous clerk, and MacQuown sit perfectly still, not even exerting patience. Suspended in time. Outside, a truck snores past. Rustle of papers. Dorothy's lawyer lounges in jury box, feet up. Idly spins a chair on its swivel. Around and around . Squeak, whirthwack. Squeak, whirthwack.
James' lawyer approaches. "You seen him?"
Languid, studied: "Hmmmm? No, but he left home early this morning."
Judge returns. Lanky lawyer brisk. Issue is property. There's a minor child. James go almost $4,000 for his injury. They're asking that he convey house to her, but don't insist on child support.
Putting Dorothy on stand, he machine-guns questions at her, not harshly, just fast. She's lived D.C. since '52, when she was 9. Married September '75, one daughter born same year. He left in '74. ("He was in the hospital a long time and then just didn't come back." Did you care?" "For awhile.")
Separated voluntarily. She had bought home in Northeast with $500 from her mother plus loan from her mother's credit union at HUD. Cost: $23,500. "He put up nothing." SHe was making $13,000, he about $10,000. Her salary now $15,728. He paid lean payments February '72 to July '74.
"I paid for almost everything else. Oh, wow, I bought the food, paid the charge accounts, the telephone. Since he left he's paid nothing . . . I put in a new kitchen, storm doors, eight new windows, a bathroom . . . I own the furniture except the dresser . . ."
James' lawyer cross-examines. Has James visited her since separating?
"He came once for Christmas. And one day he came and went berserk . . . He commenced to throw jars of plants at the child and we had to vacate the premises."
His accident compensation, insurance and back pay come to $1,200, and he offered her some of that. Once he paid her $100 for damage to her car after he ice-picked the tires.
Her mother testifies. Sees her daughter weekly, helps out sometimes babysitting.
"Is she a good mother?"
She turns to judge. Witnesses seem to respond to him.
"Yes, indeed. I help out some when she's running short."
Judge: "That's what grandmothers are for."
He orders lawyers to subpoena James for the next week. "I'm not going to make my final judgment till he testifies."
Everyone goes out. The judge chats quietly for awhile with White and MacQuown. Relaxed, attentive. Never been any particular violence in his court, he says. Though one time his life was threatened over the phone by a woman who felt he hadn't awarded her enough alimony.
There are no spectacular decisions in this court. No "Guilty!" or "Not guilty!" No defendants surrounded by weeping relatives or borne off in triumph. In fact, nobody seems really to win or lose at all. But that's the way it goes in life, isn't it.