Friday, March 6, 2015

Editor's Message: Setting the Bar High

By Ed Comey

My first contested hearing as a lawyer was before Judge James Arnold. It was a summary judgment hearing, although not a particularly complicated one. Not having argued a summary judgment motion before, I launched into what I thought was a brilliant — and, as it turns out, wholly unnecessary — exposition on the summary judgment standard shortly after making my appearance. I don’t recall precisely what he said, but Judge Arnold’s puzzled look had “this guy can’t be serious” written all over it. Before I could finish, Judge Arnold interrupted me and patiently explained how it would be more effective to focus on my substantive arguments than a legal standard the court was more than familiar with.

Although not quite the reception I was aiming for, it was one I greatly appreciated then and have come to appreciate even more over the years. Looking back, I suppose Judge Arnold could have let me ramble on and then ruled in my favor (which he eventually did) in spite of my argument. I would have felt better about the hearing, of course, but that wouldn’t have helped my professional development. Instead, the now-retired judge used the hearing as a teaching opportunity for an obviously young and inexperienced attorney, which in the long run, made me a more effective lawyer. 

In many ways, it reminded me of my high school algebra teacher who once held me after class to tell me my B+ grade was not going to cut it because he had higher expectations for me. I didn’t appear in Judge Arnold’s courtroom that often after that first hearing, but when I did, that was how I always viewed him. He was always in control of the courtroom and had high standards for the lawyers who appeared before him. Because of that, lawyers knew they would have a fair opportunity to present their case or argument. At the same time, Judge Arnold was always very gracious to others.

I understand it was not unusual for a police officer to show up at Judge Arnold’s house in the early morning hours to have a search warrant signed, only to be invited in for a cup of coffee. Court reporters often talked about how Judge Arnold made sure to take breaks during trial — not an easy thing for a busy trial judge to do — so they would be more comfortable. And he always made sure to thank jurors for their service. 

Over the years, Judge Arnold has had a number of high-profile cases in Tampa. In the late 1980s, he presided over a trial involving abortion protesters that was so large it had to be held in the Tampa Performing Arts Center. More recently, he presided over the Bubba the Love Sponge trial, known more for what happened outside the courthouse than what happened in it. There is a tendency, it seems to me, to remember judges for the big, high-profile cases they presided over. As for me, I’ll remember Judge Arnold for the high standards he set for lawyers who appeared before him, which will have a positive impact on this community for years to come.