The Judge

Gene Fletcher

© Copyright 2016 by Gene Fletcher

Honorable Mention--2016 General Nonfiction

Photo of a judge's gavel.

He was a retired federal judge who had been called out of retirement to serve on a three judge panel that was the federal court of appeals for our area. He had retired about 20 years ago so my guess was that he was about 80 to 85 years old. He looked like an actor direct from central casting. He had a healthy appearance and he had a fondness for humor. The kind of humor that appears in the daily lives that each of us live, but it is humor that is often unrecognized as we shuffle along in our somewhat boring routines.

I was working for the Internal Revenue Service when I first encountered the Judge. I was an Internal Revenue Agent assigned to the Review Staff of the Audit Division for the State of Florida. My primary duty was to review the files and reports submitted by other Agents after the case had been closed. In theory, it was a method for quality control for the agents in the field. In addition to review of files, it was my responsibility to resolve problems that needed “special attention”. These tended to involve things that the Division Chief identified as sensitive because the IRS had dropped the ball in some way. For example, an agent was fired because he was incompetent and all of his cases were transferred to me for expeditious handling. Armed with the personal authority of the Chief of the Audit Division in my hand, I could by-pass all the routine bottlenecks and go directly to the head of every line. It was all legal but much quicker than normal. In theory, this urgent action could take a problem that would normally take six weeks to resolve and complete its resolution in two days.

Another theory floating around the inner circle of the review staff, was that when you were promoted to a GS12 position, you could expect to be assigned a cubical with a window. A window was not only a status symbol it was a welcomed change from the windowless cubical that were standard in most federal office buildings. As I looked at my window, not out my window, I day dreamed about windows.

My window had been drawn on a large piece of paper. The drawing was a perfect imitation of a real window. The real window that I did not receive upon reaching a GS12 position. The drawing came with a note explaining that there were no real window available at this time. The note also stated that my window included a provision to grant me all of the rights and privileges that the real window people enjoy. This was, at the very least, evidence that some employees of the I.R.S. had a sense of humor.

I was daydreaming and looking at my window when I received a call from the Office of Chief of the Division. Since he was three pay grades above me, I was surprised that he asked for me. He said that I would soon get a call from the office of District Director with a very sensitive matter that needed immediate attention. The Chief recommended me to the District Director as a person who could resolve the matter.

By this time, I knew it going to be an interesting day. GS-12 agents rarely got an opportunity to see the Directors office and almost never had a one on one meeting with him. This would be an opportunity to impress the Director. Perhaps he would remember my name the next time he saw me.

I put on my suit coat, adjusted my tie, combed my hair and buffed the dust off my shoes. I was ready to meet with the Director.

When I arrived at the Directors office, I was immediately escorted into his office where I found him on the phone. He waived in the direction of a chair and my escort said “please have a seat.” I had seen the Director many times, usually at meetings or functions attended by large groups of people. I had been told about his temper, his tendency to curse and a few other things, all negative, about him. Now I would have a chance to see for myself.

The Director finished the call, turned to me and got right to the point. He said his Audit Davison Chief suggested me as a man who could resolve this matter diplomatically and as quickly as possible. With that said, he handed me a letter addressed to the District Director, Internal Revenue Service. I noticed the impressive letterhead of a federal judge and turned my attention to the contents of the letter.

Apparently the Judge was in a situation that was self-imposed.

In his letter to the District Director, he stated that he had received a letter from the Collection Division of the I.R.S. telling him that if his income tax for 1969 was not paid within 10 days, his bank accounts could be seized and other bad things could happen to him. The Judge said that he had sent all of the needed information into the I.R.S. but he had no response except a series of form letters that did not seem to apply to his situation. He closed with a request for assistance in resolving this matter.

The Director gave me a copy of the letter and told me to resolve this as quickly as possible. The last thing we needed was an irate federal judge on our hands.

I called the judge’s office and scheduled an appointment to meet with him on the following day. When I arrived at his office in the old Post Office Building, I was greeted by a very efficient, business like woman who escorted me to the Judge’s Office. I was impressed by the size of the office. In my limited experience, it was by far the largest federal office I had ever seen. His office was much like a large Living Room complete with a sofa, coffee table and two overstuffed chairs The Judges desk and work area were defined by an elegant carpet that appeared to be from the middle east. The conversation area was also defined by a huge carpet.

The Judge was sitting behind his desk. As I approached, he rose from his chair and came over to shake my hand. He invited me to have a seat. I chose a large overstuffed chair and settled in for a possible surprise. In situations like this, I was prepared for Just about anything.

I soon found out that the Judge was a gentleman.

After the usual introductions and small talk, the Judge began to explain his problem to me.. He had failed to report some income in 1969 due to a form 1099 that arrived late. When he discovered the error, he reported the income on his return for 1970. The ever vigilant I.R.S. found that the income was not reported in 1969 so the I.R.S. generated a bill to the Judge for a small amount of tax in 1969. He attempted to explain this in a lengthy letter complete with attached form 1099 (Dividends) and 1040 (Federal Tax Return) for each year as evidence that he owed tax in one year but was due a refund in the following year.

In his letters, the Judge offered what seemed to him, two workable alternatives.

The Judge proposed that the I.R.S. apply the refund in 1969 as part payment on the amount the Judge owed for 1970 and the Judge would pay the balance that was due on his 1970 return. As a second alternative, the Judge said that he would simply wait until the “happy day” when he received his refund and he would pay the amount due for 1970.

The Judge discovered that sending letters filled with a judicial jargon in response to form letters prepared by bureaucrats often caused more harm than good.

When the I.R.S. sent him a form letter stating that his bank accounts and other assets might be subject to seizure if he did not pay the amount due in 10 days. This letter caused the Judge to contact the Distract Director for assistance.

I secured all of the information that I needed to resolve the amounts in question and prepared to fold my files and get the judge the relief that he deserved. At some point, while the Iron Maiden made copies of some of the Judges files, I saw a magazine devoted to stamp collecting on his coffee table. When I asked about his interest in stamps, he said he was interested primarily in U.S. stamps. More specifically, he was interested in U.S. Stamps that were related to the Space Program. In a very few minutes, I found that he was not your amateur collector. He was a fountain of information on stamps, first day covers and other philatelic material. We spent the better part of an hour talking about stamps, history and collecting in general.

I returned to my office and armed with the Directors authority, proceeded to “resolve” the matter. In other words, I cut the red tape and moved the judge to the front of each line. Within 48 hours, I had completed my task. I called the judge and scheduled an appointment on the following day

When I saw the judge the next day, I explained that we had put an administrative hold on the collection of the money he owed and we had put an “expedite” processing order on his refund. He should receive a refund in seven to ten days. He could then use the refund money to pay the bill that was on administrative hold. That would complete the entire transaction. If the judge approved, I would start the process immediately. The judge said he approved and I was ready to depart when the judge ask me to stay for a moment. He had some thing for me.

He turned to a small two drawer file cabinet behind his desk and retrieved a large manila envelope. He handed the envelope to me and said “I would like you to have these”. When I opened the envelope, I found a complete set of autographed first day covers for all of the original 7 mercury astronauts. Each first day cover had a letter from NASA stating that the First Day Cover had been in the space capsule on the mission with the astronaut. These were priceless. This was a one of a kind find. The type that every stamp collector dreams about. I had no idea of their value but the autographs alone would bring a handsome sum. I had purchased some space related stamps so I knew demand for the stamps was strong. I wondered what the value really was. Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and Deke Slayton were American heroes. For a brief moment, I considered taking the manila envelope and its contents and risking my job in the process. After looking them over, I thanked the judge and gave them back to him and said “Your Honor, you know that I cannot accept these.” The judge replied that he had offered them only after our business was completed therefore the philatelic material could have no bearing on my handling of his case. My reply was the same. “No disrespect, your honor, I really cannot accept something that is clearly very valuable”.

The judge then proceeded to tell me the following story. A story that should be a lesson to all bureaucrats.

In the days of the Chinese Exclusion when the law prevented any Chinese from legally immigrating to the United States, a young Chinese woman who was a U.S. citizen made a trip home to China to visit her relatives. She was pregnant when she left the U.S. and she gave birth while she was in China. When she returned to the U.S., the immigration officials would not allow both mother and child to be admitted to the United States. The immigration officials took the position that there was paperwork to allow the mother to return to the United States but not the infant.

A great controversy arose and ultimately the immigration officials sent a lengthily cable to Washington describing the circumstances of the case and asking advice on how to proceed. The reply that was sent by telegraph should be given to all branches of the government. It was:
Don’t be a damn fool!

My reply was the same. “I am truly sorry but I cannot accept something that is so valuable.”

The judge said, “Well, Fletcher, I will offer an alternative. If you continue to work for the IRS, ultimately a case of yours will come before the Court of Appeals and you will be wrong. In that case, I will let the other judges write the opinion upholding your opponent and I will write a complementary dissent”.

On that note, the judge and I parted company. I never saw him again but I still think of him saying, with a slight grin, “Don’t be a damn fool.”

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