Chief Judge Butterfield’s “Courtroom Assignments” was a black and white grid-like document; it listed the courtroom assignments for the city’s 42 associate judges and 23 magistrate judges for the upcoming nine-month term in the courthouse’s numerous divisions (criminal, civil, family, probate, etcetera).
Every year, for one day, it became the most scrutinized document in the legal community — surpassed in interest only by those ubiquitous NCAA Final Four brackets, which, it being March, and despite gambling’s illegal status within city limits — were literally everywhere — littering the courthouse’s linoleum floors, topping its wastebaskets, and lining the blue recycle bins.
This year, Butterfield’s “Courtroom Assignments” contained a shocker; a real humdinger that for weeks generated lurid gossip that traveled, like a game of telephone — snaking through the long security lines that formed in the morning before the courthouse’s two well-protected entrances (one for lawyers, judges, probation officers, law enforcement, and court employees; the other, for civilians) — only to emerge, hours later, completely altered, from the building’s myriad unprotected, though, still camera-monitored exits.
The speculation was rank as it whisked in whispers around the hallways and courtrooms of the Superior Court. With considerably less circumspection, though still uttered in hush tones, the revelation on Butterfield’s list was the subject of full blown discussion, dissection, and pleasurable distraction for lawyers, litigants, courthouse staff, and other bored passersby of the “public” cafeteria and adjacent “Lawyer’s Lounge” (with its black, faux-rubber couches, and cheap Holiday-Inn inspired artwork — the themes revolving around pastoral settings — a bizarre choice for a city courthouse).
The Bombshell was this: Judge Zorelda Bustamente’s early retirement. It was announced in three terse paragraphs on page one just before the official listing of courtroom assignments began.
Paragraph one was a short summary of Judge Bustamente’s time on the Court including the divisions she had served “with distinction”: Civil, Juvenile Delinquency, Criminal and Domestic Violence.
Paragraph two rehashed her pre-judicial career as a prosecutor, specifically highlighting her work as an Assistant United States Attorney for four and a half years prosecuting corrupt businessmen, and, the occasional old-fashioned gangster — ones dealing in enough drugs, guns, and murder to have drawn the ire of the Feds. Also, duly noted, was the decade before that, when Bustamente’d toiled away as an unheralded Assistant District Attorney in nowheresville, Kansas, together with her academic degrees, both law and undergraduate, with high honors, from the University of Kansas — that being located in Lawrence, Kansas — which is actually a somewheresville — even if you’re not Kansanian, and don’t like basketball. A college town, it happens to be where Judge Bustamente was born and raised.
Finally, there was the obligatory third paragraph about how “The Superior Court, her colleagues on the bench, and the community, thank Judge Bustamente for her honorable service and wish her all the best in the future… ” Conspicuously absent from the banal announcement was Judge Bustamente’s shall we say “colorful” response to a prosecutor’s objection during a murder trial in her courtroom last year — the reverberations of which unquestionably led to the demise of her once promising judicial career.
It happened something like this:
PROSECUTOR: “Objection! He’s making statements to the witness your honor! One after the other. He’s making his closing argument already. He…”
JUDGE BUSTAMENTE: Counsel. Stop it. Stop it right now, please. I want to see the lawyers at the bench.
(The lawyers, both defense attorney and prosecutor, followed by the court reporter, awkwardly carting her bulky transcribing equipment, approached Judge Bustamente’s dark mahogany perch. Her chair stood several feet above the witness box in the courtroom; only the American and the city’s flag stood higher.)
JUDGE BUSTAMENTE: Mr. Sanders, Mr. Sanders. What on earth are you doing? This is 5th time I’ve warned you. Are you hard of hearing? No! No, sir. Please. Close your mouth. It was a rhetorical question. As I have explained, over and over again, there are no speaking objections in this courtroom. You stand. You say “objection.” I judiciously invite you up here. Then, and only then, do you get a chance to explain your objection instead of blurting it out to the jury; making a spectacle of yourself. Mr. Sanders — and this I assure you is not rhetorical, this time I want an answer — is there something about this simple process and my repeated explanations of it to you that you are still having trouble grasping?
PROSECUTOR: For the record…
JUDGE BUSTAMENTE: Everything is for the record, Mr. Sanders — that’s why the court reporter is up here typing, so, can you spare us — me, her (pointing at the court reporter) — and get to the part where you explain your repeated disobedience of my simple and specific instructions to you concerning my courtroom?
PROSECUTOR: Yes Ma’am. I…
JUDGE BUSTAMENTE: JUDGE or Your Honor — not ma’am!
PROSECUTOR: Your Honor. In this jurisdiction a defense attorney can’t just throw out unsubstantiated assertions and arguments to a witness before the jury just to see if they agree.
JUDGE BUSTAMENTE: Really? And, Mr. Sanders, just how exactly do you propose defense counsel question the witness?
PROSECUTOR: Well, in Hornblower versus Missouri Insurance, 232 S.W.2d 423, at page 433, our Supreme Court wrote…
He never finished that thought. Judge Bustamente, an award-winning equestrian growing up in Kansas, leaped over her bench like she was leaping on a steer. She landed right on top of Prosecutor Sander’s head taking him down by the neck like a cowboy.
Of course the courtroom deputies quickly interceded, and, in a few chaotic minutes, Judge Bustamente found herself trussed up, like game, in the very same holding cell where defendants waited to enter her courtroom.
Almost instantly Chief Judge Butterfield appeared and, true to his moniker — “Smooth Butter” Butterfield — he had the situation under control in no time. With Butterfield presiding, there were public open-court expressions of regret by the prosecutor, Judge Bustamente, and even the poor rumpled court reporter — who had herself absolutely nothing to apologize for as collateral damage of what the press would euphemistically dub, “Bustamente’s Buck Up.”
Even now, years later, nobody knows with certainty exactly why Judge Bustamente leapt over her courtroom bench, jettisoning a long and distinguished legal career in the process. The spiciest speculation though, the one that’s become courthouse lore, is that she was sleeping with AUSA Sanders — even though he was married, and had two kids — and that, at that critical moment, that moment of madness, she’d just had enough of him. So, she leaped. She leaped to shut his supercilious ass up; his whispered sweet-nothings having long gone sour.
Others, snickering, say it wasn’t only that. Sleeping with Her Honor or not, AUSA Sanders should have known better than to have said the word “Missouri” to a lifelong Jayhawk, controlling case law and amorous relationship, notwithstanding. After all, it was basketball season.
Stephen Cooper worked as a D.C. public defender between 2003 and 2012 and as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. His nonfiction columns have been published in over 100 magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. His short stories have been published by Unhinged Magazine, Sicklit Magazine, The Flash Fiction Press, and Great Jones Street Press. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. This story was originally published by Unhinged Magazine.