I attended traffic court with my wife in St. Louis County Circuit Court, where a motion hearing was to take place. My wife was called by the judge to approach the bench. She approached with me in tow. The prosecuting attorney took his position at the left corner of the table facing the judge and my wife took her place at the far right corner with me to her right.
Discussion on one of the motions began with the prosecutor for the City of Olivette, Steven Fluhr, arguing for the plaintiff. I was listening, whispering to my wife what was taking place and what to say in rebuttal. Judge Clifford then barked at my wife to keep quiet, that he was listening to the prosecutor, and he would tell her when she could speak. Now remember, my wife is pro se, and not versed in the ways of appearing at the bar.
Clifford then asked me who I was, and I said that he needed to address my wife, since I was not a party to the case. My wife told him that I was her counsel. He asked me if I was an attorney, to which I replied, no. He then told me that I could not be my wife’s counsel since I was not an attorney. My wife said that she had the right to choose her counsel and I was her choice.
Clifford proceeded to tell me that “this area” was reserved for members of the bar, and since I was not an attorney I had to sit down. I told him that I was not going to sit down, and that I was going to honor my wife’s request to assist her. He then said that he would have me jailed for contempt if I did not sit down. I told him to do what he felt he had to do, I was not sitting down. He then said that he had never been shown such disrespect in his courtroom, and he didn’t want to have to jail me for contempt, but he was prepared to do so if I did not sit down. I said to do it. There was a bailiff in the courtroom who approached me from behind as this was taking place and I just turned to look at him and I shook my head as in not to lay a hand on me. He stopped about six feet behind me.
Clifford ordered the clerks to get the sherriff. One of them asked, “Really?” and Clifford responded with, “Yes!”. Everyone just stood there. The clerks got on the phone and called the Sherriff, the prosecutor, Steven Fluhr, just looked down at his shoes, and my wife asked me what she should do if they arrest me and should she stay there for the hearing. I told her that if I am taken away that she should walk out of the courtroom since she had been deprived of her right to assistance of counsel.
At about this time two deputies came into the courtroom and Clifford held his hand up as to have them halt and told them that I was not under arrest yet, but rather to just wait there. So, there stood the deputies at the back of the courtroom, a bailiff behind me, my wife to my left and the prosecutor opposite her. There was not a sound for what seemed like about two minutes as Clifford leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling. I stood there prepared to be escorted to a cell.
Clifford finally leaned forward and said, “You can assist your wife, but you can’t stand at the bar. That is reserved for attorneys. If you wanted to assist her then you will have to sit in your seat and she could go to you to consult.” I’m thinking to myself, almost aloud, “Where is the contempt of court you threatened me with? I proceeded back to my seat, which was about six rows back. There stood the two deputies behind my seat and before I sat down I thought about sitting with them standing guard over me. I thought, “To hell with that.”, and I walked back up to the front of the courtroom and sat in the front section usually reserved for attorneys. This was a better place to hear what was taking place at the bench.
As my wife argued the motion which I had written for her she turned a few times as if to ask me a question. Clifford paused and asked, “Mrs. McCoy, it appears you have some questions for your husband. Do you wish to consult?” She said yes and was allowed to come sit by me while I briefed her on what was happening and how to argue the motion. This happened a total of three times and was allowed to consult with me uninterrupted.
After the proceeding was concluded, Clifford said, “Mr. McCoy, will you approach the bench?” I walked to the bench and leaned over close to Clifford when he said, “In all my years on the bench I have never had anyone show such disrespect. When I give an order I expect it to be followed. If you ever disobey another order in my court I will hold you in contempt, do you understand?” I looked Clifford in the eye and said, “It think we understand each other.” I then turned and walked out of the courtroom.
The moral of the story is that people have a right to assistance of their choosing. I do not represent people in legal proceedings. I do not speak to the court on their behalf. I speak with them privately. No judge has a right to tell someone they are not entitled to assistance of any kind. Clifford knew this and also knew he would be breaking the law by denying my wife assistance. He would have opened a can of worms by having me held in contempt. I was prepared for this possibility. When you have nothing to fear you will realize the only people like Clifford have on their side is intimidation and fear.