You man a job right, job’ll right the man

Jobs have a way of defining us. We become “the job” or rather grow into what we perceive to be the “ideal performer” of that job. Whether we like it or. The job. Or ourselves.

I loved civil service jobs. They were among the best I had. Worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) as a “information specialist,” and served as an intern for the Defender Association of Philadelphia representing poor criminal defendants. Both were summer jobs!

 Road to Newspaper Work

The first involved writing as a Finnegan Fellowship student between my 2nd and 3rd/4th years in college. (Combined the two. Earned enough credits to graduate in three, and not four years.) Answered letters and fielded phone calls in Harrisburg, the state capital of Pennsylvania, as part of a fellowship to study government while working in the “field.” Ended up writing press releases, a speech for then Gov. Milton Shapp, and doing the “voice over” for a television newscast at a local TV station.  I got the job despite limited writing abilities. Studied journalism right out of the Army, never thinking writing could become a “career” until a neighbor asked me on entering Community College what I was to major in. I didn’t know. He suggested Journalism because I studied printing. He thought they were closely related.

Well, yes and no. The graphics part is related, that is, the “make up” of the printed word is a form of communications. You can attract interest in words by the way they’re presented. But printing does not involve “writing” the editorial content, the thought process to convey ideas. I had no background whatsoever in writing while in high school year, or three years I served in the US Army. I wrote a smidgen of poetry and one short story looking at my family’s move from Philadelphia to the suburban Main Line Wayne, PA. (It was “literally” on the other side of the tracks — an elevated train track separated the higher middle class from the lower middle class section with hand-writing on the iron bridge saying “You are now entering Lil Chicago.” Guess which side my family ended up?)

I also wrote for classes I presented to basic training recruits where I received commendations. The awards were more for the presentation than for my writing. But, I could not have done it had I not wrote my material. (This would do me well as a trial attorney when writing closing arguments and presenting ’em to a hundred different juries in Philadelphia.)

I remember having to write a letter for a young soldier who died in a car accident while serving as clerk in our training camp while in Ft. Polk, Louisiana. He had cheated on his wife, but I overlooked that in writing to his spouse, and spoke more about his feelings for her and the kids when I included the letter in a box we sent her containing his personal belongings.

Also, had to study and take notes for prosecuting several young soldiers who ran afoul of military life by going AWOL and/or disobeying orders. Did not like arguing before a summary court-martial, particularly when I won and felt it was my fault one of the defendants had to be punished. I knew him. And liked him. A fellow from New Orleans who just could not adjust to a regimented way of life. “Don’t take it so hard, Lt. Contos,” the private told me after I apologized for having to “bring him to justice.” “It’s not your fault. I was the one that got me into this mess.”


Military life played a major role in my other great summer job. As a Third-Year student out of Temple Law School I represented criminal defendants charged with failing to appear (FTA) in Court. They got bench warrants and had to appear before a judge or what we called a “trial commissioner” for a hearing to explain their “no-show.” The worse cases were those at trial for the most serious cases, which we called “Judge Only” hearings, in which a defendant went before a “sitting judge” and not a trial commissioner, who may not even be a lawyer. (Like many of the “Justices of the Peace” who conducted initial judicial proceedings with the power to imprison and set bail, a trial commissioner could not decide guilt or innocence for a crime punishable by more than six months in jail. The Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution grants defendant, among other things, the right to a trial by judge “and a jury.”

You were placed in custody once you showed up for a “Judge Only’ bench warrant hearing. Chances were, you already had a record and were “ducking” Court, and not staying away for some legitimate reason. The time in custody would count toward an eventual sentence should it require your incarceration.

A Pathway to Seek Justice

A “Judge Only” was the toughest bench warrant to defend. Always seemed like we’d get before the meanest judge on the bench. Never saw many lawyers getting their clients off with out some jail time, let alone hear of any interns “winning” an argument.

And, so it was when this down-on-his luck Vietnam era veteran appeared before Judge Michael Stiles, a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge who would later be appointed to serve with the Attorney Generals’ Office under the Clinton administration. He had a reputation of being tough, but fair, having come up through the ranks, so to speak, while serving as a prosecutor before donning the black robes. He knew advocacy from the ground on up!

It had been several years since my client had failed to appear. Luckily, it was the only FTA. But, he did not have “ties” to Philadelphia, having just been released from Chester County, some 30 miles away where he was an inpatient at Coatesville (PA) VA (Veterans Administration) Medical Center. (Treated for alcohol-related problems, having never saw combat . . . [I never revealed that part to the judge.] )

Here’s a man, who served in the Army . . . a Vietnam era veteran,” I told the judge, using the “correct” terminology for such a non-combat veteran. “Your Honor, he voluntarily admitted himself into the VA hospital, where he is now getting full-time treatment. He had to take a train and several buses to get to our city . . . He got here on time, and while we have no excuse for what he did, I submit to you he is a different man today than what he was facing you before. I ask you to take all of this into consideration for your decision.”

 Judge Stiles cut off all speech the assistant district attorney (ADA) assigned to his court room was about to make. The ADA, a seasoned attorney, was expected to argue against me, a lowly intern, more tha a year away from taking the bar exam to practice law.

The jurist spoke with the wisdom of Solomon. I have no idea what he said, I was too exhausted following my rather emotional appeal for a fellow veteran. All I remember is that the warrant was “lifted” and my client given a new subpoena to appear in Court without being sent to jail. I’d later learn that many judges would give credit for “time served” for any legitimate inpatient program to rehabilitate a person. I like to think the man avoided jail and turned his life around, but public defenders hardly get a chance for follow-up work, having to deal with literally thousands of defendants over a 20-year career.

I think my two summer jobs served me well and helped form the person you see before you. Did the job make the man? Or the man make the job? You make the call.

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