Philadelphia Justice with Judge Lineberger

My all-time favorite Philadelphia Judge was James Lineberger, a no-nonsense jurist who’d scare the hell out of many a defendant I’d bring to the bar of the court, and one time caused one of my clients to pass out when he sentenced him for a heinous crime a jury found him guilty of committing.

Judge Lineberger could also be as warm and fuzzy as a teddy bear who would leave the bench at the top of the courtroom and float down to the metal bar when spotting a Korean woman. He could serenade in her native tongue while gazing out from his big lovable and loving eyes.

The judge was also a US Army veteran, the only one I ever met who received a battlefield commission – being elevated from the ranks of an “enlisted man” to that of an officer when he served with utmost distinction in the Vietnam War. He served more than 20 years in “this man’s army,” and then went to law school before working for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office under Ed Rendell who would later become mayor of our fair city and then governor of the State of Pennsylvania.


Lady Justice was in good hands with Judge Lineberger

I met Mr. Lineberger, Esquire, at another point of his majestic career. He served as a criminal defense lawyer and took on a man who I detested and – I hate to say this – “hated” while that man served as judge in the Common Pleas Courts of Philadelphia. That judge got into a heated discussion with Lineberger who never once backed down or gave an inch. The jurist (Ah hell – his name was Angelo Guarino) raised his loud Italian voice and shouted “Do you know who you’re talking to?”

The six-foot, four-inch African American Lineberger never batted an eyelash when he replied; “Do you know who you’re talking to?”

Attorney-at-law Lineberger represented many Koreans during his private practice. Many were from the Korean section of Philadelphia. He learned much of the the language while serving in the military.

I’m get ready to visit the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) here in Korea. I don’t believe that it was an accident in meeting a man so in love with this country. I think the Universe offered a foreshadowing of what was to come for me more than a decade later.


I once represented a drummer for a famous Philadelphia Rock & Roll band that had been inducted into the Rock & Roll Museum. He had fallen on hard times and had eventually found a hard way of living. Five or six other lawyers in the Defender Association of Philadelphia had “continued” his case knowing that it was what we called a “loser,” and that they wanted him to remain on the streets for as long as possible before facing judgement day.

I never liked continuances, so I tried the case and he was found guilty. As I stood with him at the time of sentencing he took his punishment “like a man.”

And then he fainted.

A court crier and a sheriff immediately rushed to his aid and someone got him a cup of water before he regained his footing. He was taken away in handcuffs to serve 15-to-30 years, a moderate sentence I thought for the crimes he was accused of and the pain he must have caused his victims – who were both members of his own family.


That was my second introduction to Mr. Lineberger, the former army captain and prosecutor. I was at the bar of the court when I witnessed his challenge to the judge many of the Philadelphia defense bar disliked because he tilted the “playing field” in favor of the prosecution. I admired him for his guts and courage to stand up to the judge. I, in the meantime set an unofficial public defender record by trying ten jury trials in nine weeks – nine of them in front of that feared judge. (He was later removed from the bench by the order of the State Supreme Court for gross misuse of his power in treatment of Philadelphia citizens applying for “hardship” exemptions from serving on his juries. He was physically removed from the bench in the middle of a jury trial and escorted out of the courtroom while another judge too his place.

The third time I faced Judge Lineberger was when my office assigned me to his courtroom, where I tried cases for a full year as a public defender. It is from this position that I got a close up view of the man and felt such an affinity to and for him.

He was one of the fairest judges to try a case to. I believe any prosecutor would agree. I never tried a non-jury trial before him, that is, a trial without a jury. That in and of itself tells you something, and that is, he was not what some would call a “defense-oriented” judge. (Two of my other favorite judges were called defense oriented. They were former public defenders of whom I will ask to marry me when I find another wife in my next lifetime! Got that?)


I had never heard the term “Big-Headed Irishman” until Judge Lineberger referred to another jurist in Philadelphia with whom he had worked with at the Philadelphia DA’s office,  Judge Jeffrey Minehart. He said it in jest and admiration, the way true friends and close family members can call each other names because they are really terms of endearment. (I’ve come to use that term at least once in my life with an Irishman. You can see it in the previous Blog Post, A Dark & Stormy Night of the Soul.)

The ruggedly handsome Judge Lineberger was also a lady’s man wearing nothing but the finest garbs money could buy. Hell, he was receiving several pensions by the time I met him as a jurist. The assistance came from Social Security, the army and the city for which he served as a prosecutor. How else could he have afforded to have personal attendants — several of whom were attractive women — visit him in his “cloaking” room to advise him on his wardrobe an, one can only assume, take measurements. He dressed immaculately and caught the eye of the young and old!

Yes, he also had an eye out for women. Once, I had requested the Spanish interpreter from the Defender’s office join me and Judge Lineberger was all smiles as she translated what my client said during a plea arrangement. After she left, the judge beamed and said quite often that she was “very pleasing to the eye.”


A woman figured greatly during one of only two times that I was ever thrown out of a courtroom. She was a rather sexy woman in her early 30s who had appeared in support of her Mafia-Wannabe South Philadelphian boyfriend who forced a retrial when his court-appointed lawyer displeased him and the defendant upended the defense table in the middle of the trial in full view of the jury.

I was appointed to represent him for his contempt of court hearing and met him in the courtroom’s adjacent “lock-up” cell room. He was a dark skinned, dark-looking Italian fellow who spoke with a South Philly accent. Picture a Rocky Balboa, but a little smaller and a lot more of a smart-aleck. He didn’t like his other lawyer because he was “no good” and “was losing the case” for him, he said. The attorney broke his glasses during the trial and rather than get a new pair, he taped the dark glasses together with a white strip of to hold the broken stem to the spectacle main frame.

“I offered to buy him a new pair, but he refused” the defendant told me. What caused him to go crazy was when the lawyer split his pants at the trial and the jurors saw his white underwear through the tear. It was then, he said, that he overturned the table and cursed out his barrister.

Leaving the defendant, I re-entered the courtroom. A lovely woman approached me and introduced herself as his fiancé. She was breathtaking to look at and very “easy on the eye.” I tried to explain there was very little that could be done for her friend, but that I would try to do my best. (There were little if any chances the judge would ever lower bail or reduce the fine, but I didn’t tell her that.)

Well, I gave it my best shot when the defendant was brought into court. Judge Lineberger  nailed me every time I’d raise an argument. He was correct, but I kept trying to show my client — and more so his girlfriend — that I was fighting for him.

Judge Lineberger must have taken offense. He was having quite a discussion with the young lady when I asked him to take notice of her as part of my client’s family. He made eyes at her, if you know what I mean. Any full-blooded American male would understand what I’m  saying. And the judge wouldn’t stand for some low-life of a lawyer like me trying  to upstage him.

He ordered sheriffs to arrest me after I raised my voice too loudly.

He then called me the most hurtful name anyone ever uttered about me in a court of law

“Take this . . . short . . . lawyer out of here!”

(Contos means “short” in some foreign language. I never did find out how he learned it. It hurt. I’m only five-foot, six inches!)

(For the story of my incarceration, please see: Smoke handcuffs me when stress hits home. No Smoking Please!)

I don’t know what happened to the defendant or his girlfriend. I was set free when a supervisor from my office came to court and plead my case. I was “zealously representing the interest of a client” the supervising lawyer said, adding that I must have stepped over the line. I believe I actually bowed to the judge when he declined to hold me in contempt and freed me from the situation.

It became one of the best “war stories” of my legal career, bar none!


But my favorite story involved a client charged with robbery outside of what I’d call a “girlie bar” in West Philadelphia. The assistant district attorney, a season homicide lawyer who was given a break with cases of a less serious nature, accused the defendant of gun-point robbery even though no gun was recovered. My client had a lot of hard cash on his person and it was used as evidence against him.

I simply told the client’s story in a rather colorful way during the trial and ended up citing lyrics from an Oldie-but-a-Goodie Rock & Roll song called “Stagger Lee.” Singer Lloyd Price spoke of two men “gambling late.” “Stagger Lee threw a seven. Billy swore he threw an eight.”

They were shooting craps, the game of dice, in the song!

And that is exactly what my client told me truly happened. The so-called victim left the bar and gambled away his money with the defendant. Rather than admit his loss to his girlfriend, he claimed that he was robbed. He had not called the police until his girlfriend forced him to. (This was backed up by evidence, the police phone records.) I argued that he’d be kicked out if he told the truth and the jury bought it.

What sealed the deal, I believe, was when I “published” my client to the jury. I got permission from the judge for my client to take the witness stand for one and only one purpose only. He rolled down the sleeve of his arm and showed a bright red and blue tattoo on it.

It was a pair of dice showing two numbers, a three and a four. A seven — which turned out to be a real winner!


I’ll never forget what Judge Lineberger said as the jury was dismissed and my client’s family members hugged him and shook my hand following the not-guilty verdict.

As I was leaving, silence had descended onto the courtroom.The judge looked down upon me and recited part of the song with his deep bass voice “Go Stagger Lee . . . Go!” It was the best exit line I ever got!

6 comments on “Philadelphia Justice with Judge Lineberger

  1. Carmen says:

    Brought a tear to my left eye…. thanks Mike….



    • contoveros says:

      I got chill when I saw your name and I broke out with the greatest shit-eating grin I had since we shared a contracts class at Temple Law School.

      There she is.

      Judge Lineberger’s daughter.

      But it was the quote you wrote that tore me apart.

      “Bring a tear to my left eye.”

      That’s exactly what he told persons seeking a hardship excuse for not serving in one of his jury trials. Their story had to “bring tear to my left eye” before he would grant them relief from performing their civic duty.


      He was my favorite and I feel so blessed to have practiced before him and gotten to know him.

      Thank you my dear!


      • Carmen says:

        Reading your story brought tears to both eyes my friend! Big ole Irish head….he said that about Jack McMahon too!! Lol He loved Jeff! I thought either he or McMahon would have a stroke one day yelling at each other!! Oh the memories! And his staff!! Omg! Carmen Lassus laying hands on him, saying a prayer!!

        Thank you for giving me such great reading material, and for doing what you do!!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. […] My craving ended when a lawyer from the Defender Association appeared before the judge, plead my “temporary insanity,” and chalked it up to my being overly zealous, something the judge himself knew all too well, and he imposed no further penalty. (See:Philadelphia Justice: Judge James Lineberger.) […]


  3. contoveros says:

    “Go Stagger Lee . . . Go”


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