The Night Before Christmas–With One Judge

night before christmasFor years in Hennepin County, the largest in Minnesota, on the night before Christmas one judge always volunteered for duty.

Judge Jack Gill insisted on handling the misdemeanor calendars for those days. Now deceased, Judge Gill even looked the part of a small Santa Claus. He had a halo of white hair, large glasses, a small nose, and high-pitched voice. For an older man, he still held a lot of energy.

Judge Gill had led an interesting life. He was an athlete in high school and at the University of Minnesota. A war veteran, he’d come back to Minnesota with his twin brother to attend law school. Several years later, after his wife persuaded the Governor to appoint him a judge so Jack Gill sat on the bench.

He always reminded me of Santa: a bright personality, smart, quick with jokes and laughter, always pleasant, and polite to everyone. He treated everyone–other judges, lawyers, probation officers, and defendants with the same, equal consideration.

When I was a young lawyer, Judge Gill helped me immensely. Even at the end of a day after hearing long calendars, he was always willing to give advice and encouragement.

Every year as the night before Christmas came closer, most people in the court system begged for time off. Not Judge Jack Gill. Every year he volunteered to hear the misdemeanor arraignment calendar.

This was a day-long calendar composed of all the minor criminal activity that had occurred the previous evening. That could include, DUI’s, simple assaults, bar fights, shop lifting, prostitution, traffic offenses, and disorderly conduct. The calendars often contained dozens of people–many who committed crimes because they had nothing to eat, no place to sleep, were chemically dependent, or wanted a warm bed for a few days in the county workhouse.

Judge Jack Gill always agreed to hear these cases.

People on these calendars stepped out of the lock-up area for their first appearance. They could either plead guilty or not guilty. If the pled not guilty, the judge either released them without bail or set some amount.

On the night before Christmas, the judge played Santa. For those who pled guilty to minor offenses, he always let them off without any penalty. Even for those defendants who pled not guilty, he never set bail. If someone told him they wanted to plead guilty and needed a place to sleep for a few days, the judge accommodated them by sending them to the workhouse for food, a shower, and a warm bed.

Was it fair? Was it justice?

I don’t know, but for one day in the entire year, the poor and hungry found Santa Claus and mercy in the courtroom.

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About Colin Nelson

Colin T. Nelson worked for 40 years as a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis. He tried everything from speeding tickets to first degree murder. His writing about the courtroom and the legal system give the reader a "back door" view of what goes on, what's funny, and what's a good story. He has also traveled extensively and includes those locations in his mysteries. Some are set in Southeast Asia, Ecuador,Peru, and South Africa. Readers get a suspenseful tale while learning about new places on the planet. Colin is married, has two adult children, and plays the saxophone in various bands.

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