Nine or ten years ago, in a court I know well, something along the following lines was said between a judge and a somewhat aggrieved defendant in traffic court:
Defendant: Judge, the police in this city have harassed me and my family for three years. They stop us three-four times a month, just to check our driver’s licenses. They know about the suspensions from Florida and Georgia. And that this state’s bureaucrats will not issue a license to us.
Judge: Excuse me, sir. I have your pleading in front of me. Your ten-page pleading, in which you’ve covered all of the matters that you are talking about just now. As well as the others. You allege that court employees are sneaking into your garage at night—
Defendant: They are!
Judge: And you claim that they’ve messed with the remote control on the television—
Defendant: That’s right. So that we can never see the shows that we want to watch anymore.
Judge: You would agree with me, though, that this is a civil complaint for damages?
Defendant: Excuse me?
Judge: Damages. You are asking for damages. Compensatory damages. Pain and suffering. Punitive damages. Starting on page nine.
Defendant: Yes. Yes, that’s right. Ten million dollars in damages.
Judge: Okay, then. Now, bear with me for a second. Your pleading is somewhat inartful, a word I need to use for the record, but I am giving it the most liberal construction that I can.
Defendant: Okay. What’s that mean?
Judge: Well, you’ve conceded, admitted—You agree that this is a suit against the State and the court and the city for ten million dollars in damages.
Defendant: That’s right.
Judge: Well, in this state, the constitutional and statutory law that establishes this court says that this court has a monetary jurisdictional limit for civil cases of five thousand dollars—and, generally speaking, only in contract-type cases. So, I don’t have jurisdiction over any case in which someone is suing for more than five thousand dollars, no matter what type of case it is. Therefore, I am obliged on legal grounds to dismiss the pleading.”
There was a long and pregnant pause. So long and so pregnant that those who were there recall that it filled the courtroom with some kind of emotion that few were able to attach a label to.
Defendant: Your Honor, I beg to differ. You don’t have to dismiss the case.
Judge: I don’t? Why not?
Defendant: Because … I’ll take the $5,000.
I was reminded of this during the past couple of years, which saw a certain person file a document titled “First Notice of Commercial Lien” in the real estate records of the county where I live. In language that was far more than inartful, this person claimed that he was owed $500,000 for copyright infringement, defamation, and a few other reasons by two judges, a state trooper, and a prosecutor.
It took a while, and justice prevailed. But it was not a pretty process.
Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at email@example.com.