Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Gogol's Briefcase

From Washington Lawyer, February 2014

By Jacob A. Stein

spectatorThe court clerks have the justified reputation of helping the lawyers who need help. Of course, the clerks play no favorites.

However, I shall speak of a matter in which a clerk was dishonest. The lawyer who was slighted was a Mr. Gogol, a slight man in his 50s. One could take him for a professor of mathematics or a specialist in the humanities. His overcoat was worn at the elbow.

Nevertheless, the coat looked like the hand of a good tailor who made uniforms for prominent people. However, what really distinguished Gogol was his handsome brown leather briefcase with elegant brass fittings and a strong brass lock.

Gogol inherited the briefcase from his mother who inherited it from her mother, who was connected with the Russian Gogol family.

On the day in question, Gogol was in court with his briefcase containing all the legal papers of his only client, a woman in a divorce case. She wanted Gogol to get her a speedy trial so she could tell the judge the bad things her husband did.

Gogol and his client appeared as they should at 9:15 a.m. in the domestic relations Clerk’s Office. The assignment clerk allocated cases from the calendar to be tried and reassigned the others. It was rumored that this clerk helped his friends get the assignments they wanted.

When Gogol’s case was called, the assignment clerk was distracted momentarily by Gogol’s briefcase. Was this odd-looking person somebody with such a briefcase? No, Gogol’s shabby appearance confirmed that Gogol was a nobody.

Gogol waited in the Assignment Office to be assigned to a courtroom. At 3 o’clock the assignment clerk, scarcely looking up, told Gogol his case would not be reached on the calendar for at least two months.

When Gogol’s client heard this, she was enraged. She told Gogol she will see the chief judge and get an explanation. Gogol could not stop her. Off they went to the Chief Judge’s Office. The chief judge’s secretary asked what they wanted. Gogol told her about what went on with the assignment clerk. The chief judge’s secretary told Gogol and his client to remain in the waiting room. She will talk with the judge. A few minutes later, she told Gogol that he must put his complaint in writing.

At this turn of events, Gogol’s client demanded her file. Gogol suddenly recalled that he left his briefcase in the Assignment Office. He ran back to the office to get his briefcase. Everyone had gone. There was no briefcase.

The next day Gogol returned early to the Clerk’s Office. He asked the assignment clerk for the briefcase. The assignment clerk said no one has seen it. The clerk told Gogol to check with Lost and Found. Gogol went there in a panic. No briefcase was there. He left the courthouse. Nobody ever saw him again.

The story takes a strange turn. Three days later, after Gogol and the briefcase disappeared, odd things happened. All the lawyers in the town were surprised to learn that the combination locks on their fancy attaché cases would not open.

Locksmiths were called. They were baffled. They could not fix the locks. The only way to open the briefcase was to cut off the lock from the leather, but that would destroy the briefcase.

The following week a junior lawyer in a large firm discovered he could not open a senior partner’s briefcase. The junior sought permission from the senior partner to pry open the lock to get the important documents in the briefcase. The senior advised the junior that the firm paid $600 for the briefcase. Its destruction could not be authorized without a meeting of the Acquisition Committee. The junior, in this dilemma, worked out a settlement.

The briefcase mystery was drawing attention among the Bar. The chief judge ordered a meeting of the courtroom clerks to discuss the matter of the briefcase.

The assignment clerk strolled across the courtyard to attend the chief judge’s meeting. Suddenly, he felt a strong tugging at the fine brown leather briefcase with the beautiful brass locks and fittings. For a moment he thought he saw “Gogol” pointing to the briefcase. Then “Gogol” disappeared.

When the clerk arrived at the chief judge’s conference room, he took his usual seat up front. He put the briefcase by his chair. He glanced at it from time to time. It seemed to be moving away from him. He looked to see if anyone else noticed this strange movement of the briefcase.

Then, it happened. The assignment clerk’s briefcase fell open, spilling its contents onto the floor, the court’s office supplies—staplers, rulers, pens, expensive bottles of ink, and other things that belonged to the court.

The assignment clerk did not know what to do. Should he gather everything up and put it back in the case? That would be incriminating. Should he just let the articles stay there on the floor? What to do. He decided to pick them up and put them back in the briefcase, but the briefcase had snapped itself shut.

After the meeting, the chief judge and the assignment clerk met privately. A week later, the clerk submitted his resignation.

Thereafter, all the locks of all the briefcases suddenly snapped open. What happened to the briefcase? It was put up for auction and purchased by an odd-looking person in a fine-looking overcoat.

Reach Jacob A. Stein at jstein@steinmitchell.com.