The story we’re about to share with you is great, gossipy fun. But we must warn you that it’s not for everyone. It’s on the long side, and it’s aimed at a rather narrow demographic.
It’s most likely to entertain (1) current or former Ninth Circuit clerks and (2) people who follow the federal judiciary very, very closely. If you were a reader of Underneath Their Robes back in the day, then this story is for you.
In recognition of its “inside baseball” nature — and so as not to inflict it upon people who just want Biglaw salary info — we’ve placed the complete story after the jump.
As told to us by a longtime reader of Above the Law:
A few weeks ago, I’m flying from San Francisco back to the East Coast. I’m settled into my window seat — yes, in coach — and looking forward to a peaceful flight.
I’ve barely seated myself when a family of four — hereinafter “Dysfunctional Family,” or “DF” — starts coming down the aisle. They’re a total disaster. Each DF member is carrying a gazillion items, including cups of coffee. They’re squawking loudly at each other. They’re moving at a snail’s pace, gumming up the aisle. Other passengers are getting backed up behind them, with irritated looks on their faces.
Dysfunctional Family consists of a harried mom, a defensive dad, a complaining daughter, and her brother. DF daughter is particularly egregious. She’s dressed in annoying bohemian fashion: a tie-dye shirt, a knit cap that she’s messily stuffed all her hair into. She’s bitching to her father about how they’re not seated all together. The father is telling Boho Daughter that it’s not his fault, his secretary made the arrangements, etc.
Boho Daughter stops at my row. I’m afraid she’s going to sit down next to me. She places her venti latte on the armrest between the aisle and middle seats in my row….
As it turns out, Boho Daughter is actually in the row BEHIND me. She’s just putting her latte down on the armrest in my row so she can hoist her bag up into the overheard bin.
But the fact that she’s not even SITTING in my row doesn’t stop her from — BAM!!! — knocking over her completely full, scalding hot, venti latte. WHOA…
The Starbucks cup yields up its foamy contents, spilling them all over the middle seat in my row. The back and bottom seat cushions are completely drenched, reduced to a hot, disgusting, wet-wool-smelling mess.
Thankfully it didn’t spill over to where I was sitting, in the window seat. But I was plenty annoyed. My first thought: “Whoever ends up sitting in that seat is going to think that I did this…”
Immediately after “Starbucks Valdez,” Dysfunctional Family turns into a COMPLETE s**t show. DF Dad and DF Mom start running around the cabin like chickens with their heads cut off. They’re going in a million different directions at once — to the back of the plane, to the front, to the back again. They’re summoning the flight attendants. They’re trying to get paper towels from the bathroom. They’re squawking angrily at one another, so that the entire cabin can hear them. The scene is TOTAL CHAOS.
(You know in “Little Miss Sunshine,” when they finally arrive at the hotel, and they fall all over each other getting out of the van? It was like that. But on a plane.)
After what seems like forever, things calm down. The flight attendants replace the bottom seat cushion with a new seat. But the back seat cushion can’t be removed, and it’s still soaking wet.
(To her credit, Boho Daughter wonders aloud: “Maybe I should sit in that seat now?” Ultimately she decides against it, quietly slipping back into her seat in the row behind us. But at least the throught crossed her mind.)
After things have calmed down, and Boho Daughter has taken her seat one row back, the occupant of the drenched middle seat finally shows up. It’s a middle-aged woman and her husband, who are in the middle and aisle seats next to me.
Upon noticing her seat’s coffee-drenched cushion, the woman grimaces. She looks around. The expression on her face: “What the hell happened here?”
For the first time since they got on the plane, Dysfunctional Family is COMPLETELY SILENT. Not a peep out of Boho Daughter, her crazy-ass parents, or her brother (the least offensive member of the clan).
After nobody speaks up, the woman inevitably rests her accusatory gaze upon me. At this point, not wanting to be blamed for a crime I didn’t commit, I’m compelled to rat out the true culprit:
“Umm, that young woman over there” — I gesture behind me, towards Boho Daughter — “spilled coffee on the seat, when she was putting her bag in the overhead bin.”
At this point, Boho Daughter looks up, sheepishly. She doesn’t say a word, but she has an apologetic, guilty, “Yup I’ve been busted” look on her face.
Eventually the situation is fixed. A flight attendant puts down a small mountain of blue blankets on the seat, to insulate the middle-aged woman from the wetness. It doesn’t look very comfortable, but it’s probably better than soaking your back in warm coffee for five hours.
I find myself staring at Dysfunctional Family — in particular, DF Mom. She looks very, very familiar. I know that I’ve seen her before.
Suddenly, it comes to me: I’ve actually APPEARED before Dysfunctional Mom. She’s a federal judge. And not just any federal judge, but one of the most brilliant, high-powered, controversial, and liberal jurists, in the entire United States.
Who is she? Dysfunctional Mom is none other than the Honorable Marsha Berzon, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Yes, THAT Judge Berzon. The federal judge known as a Holy Terror to her hapless law clerks. The federal judge referred to, in some quarters — and even recognized by Google (see screenshot below) — as She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
That’s the end of our reader’s tale. We are deeply grateful for this excellent contribution.
ATL Discussion Questions:
1. What was a federal circuit judge doing flying coach? Why should federal judges, the closest thing our country has to an aristocracy, be forced to fly with the hoi polloi? Should Chief Justice Roberts cite this in his next report advocating a judicial pay raise?
2. Why was She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named flying commercial? What happened to her broom?
We haven’t contacted Judge Berzon for comment (because we’re afraid she’d send evil spirits through the telephone line). But we have no difficulty believing that Judge Berzon’s family is, um, a tad disorganized.
Why? Because, if rumors are true, her chambers is a total gong show. From a former Ninth Circuit clerk:
The Berzon chambers was notoriously disorganized. For such a brilliant woman — a former Supreme Court clerk [OT 1974/Brennan] and successful SCOTUS litigator — Judge Berzon cannot run an office to save her life. Nothing ever went smoothly over there.
You know that stupid and useless Microsoft Outlook “Recall” function, which you frantically but unsuccessfully invoke, after sending out — to your ENTIRE office — an email about how drunk you got last Friday? Well, the MS Outlook “Recall” button is a Berzon chambers favorite.
During my clerkship, roughly two or three times a week, the Berzon chambers would send out an email to the entire Ninth Circuit (e.g., an en banc vote). Then, about two minutes later, every Ninth Circuit judge would get the following: “Judge Marsha Berzon would like to recall the message: Smith v. Jones.”
Completely embarrassing and mortifying. I don’t know why the Berzon chambers found sending email so difficult.
A helpful hint to Judge Berzon: You can reduce your reliance upon the “Recall” button by actually PROOFREADING messages before hitting “Send.”
Further Update: We are willing to defend various aspects of this posting in the face of criticism. But we must admit, with the benefit of hindsight, that our timing could not have been worse.