My very first trial took place in a tiny courtroom between a surf shop and a tiki bar.
I am referring to Municipal Court in Folly Beach, SC, where every week a parade of life’s unfortunates were summoned to answer for crimes of public indecency (aka nude sunbathing) and unlawful sleeping (aka being passed out on the beach).
My case was far less exciting. My client was Mrs. Peagler, an elderly lady who lived on Folly Beach three blocks from the Atlantic Ocean. She was sent by my friend Nick in what could be called a sympathy referral. This was back in the 80s, during my fallow period, when I spent most of my days watching the pigeons on the ledge outside the window of my lonely Broad Street office.
“The case has potential,” said Nick.
By potential he meant no lawyer in their right mind would touch it. But I said sure, bring it on. At least it would get me out of the office.
A Little Beach Music
Mrs. Peagler was a sweet, slightly stooped lady who was hard of hearing. She rented out her home from Easter to Labor Day, primarily to Citadel students.
At the time, Pat Conroy’s “Lords of Discipline” was a hit movie, and Citadel cadets were riding a testosterone-fueled wave. My client had been cited – courtesy of her rowdy tenants – for violating a number of town ordinances, including littering, illegal parking and excessive noise.
“My boys are innocent,” she said.
“They’re not the ones charged,” I said. “You are.”
“Like I said. They’re guilty.”
The Judge Wore Plaid
The judge came into court wearing a bright plaid shirt and loafers, with a robe thrown over one arm. Mrs. Peagler and I sat on the front row while he dispensed justice to speeding drivers and public drunks, and when the courtroom had emptied he called our case.
“Well hello Mrs. P,” he said to my client.
Mrs. Peagler beamed. For the next few minutes she and the judge chatted about mutual friends and how hot it had been, and I realized she had the type of hearing loss that came and went as the situation required. All I could do was stand there sweating and growing less and less certain of my case strategy. I’d prepared a four-page Motion to Dismiss based on vague jurisdictional grounds that even I did not fully understand.
“Tell you what,” the judge said, looking amiably at me. “Why don’t we just walk over and have a look at the property in question. That is, if counsel doesn’t object.”
“His name is Jay not Jack,” said Mrs. Peagler.
“No objection,” I said.
South of Broad
Her house was only a few blocks away – back then everything on Folly Beach was only a few blocks away – and as we approached you could hear music and shouting and see cars parked up and down the street. It was like a scene out of Animal House. Young men spilled off the porch and into the yard, all of them with their shirts off and Ray-Bans on and red plastic cups in their hands.
“Mama P,” they shouted happily as we walked up.
“Boys,” she said. “The judge is here.”
Turns out Mrs. Peagler was something of a fixture on Folly Beach. She lived in a tiny apartment behind her house and was like a surrogate mother, or grandmother, to her unruly Bulldogs. She had rented to them for years.
Of course I knew none of this. I worked downtown and lived on Sullivan’s Island, in a cottage my wife and I had bought for $62,000.
Mama P went over and talked to her boys. Soon the music was turned down and the cars were moved to the public lot a few blocks away.
“Well I believe this nuisance has been abated,” said the judge.
He said if my client promised to keep a lid on things in the future, he was inclined to dismiss the charges.
“That is, unless counsel objects.”
“His name is Jay.”
“No objection,” I said, my motion having wilted to a soggy wad in the summer heat.
Memories Are Made of This
After that, I learned to be wary of cases with potential, and of referrals from Nick. I also learned if a trial involves real estate, it’s a good idea to visit the property beforehand.
I haven’t been to Folly Beach in years. Hurricane Hugo changed everything in that part of the world. Writing this story, I checked Google Street View and saw that City Hall now occupies a handsome building on Center Street.
I also viewed my old home on Sullivan’s Island. Back then, our house had a sinking foundation and an oil furnace and no air conditioning. It’s gone now, replaced by a magnificent residence worth 50 times what we originally paid for the property.
But not everything can be valued in dollars. And my memories of those days on Jasper Boulevard – in the first home I ever owned, newly married, with a baby on the way and the smell of sea-salt and honeysuckle in the air – are priceless.
Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina and is author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World. He runs Your Law Life LLC, which helps lawyers and firms improve their well-being and create saner, more successful law lives. He is available for talks, presentations and confidential consultations.