by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
February 27, 2007
IF JUDGE SEIDLIN GETS A SHOW, I'LL WATCH
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- Last week, in the Circuit Court of Broward County, Fla., Americans witnessed proceedings in probate court presided over by Judge Jerry Seidlin with 18 lawyers, assorted witnesses, three major petitioners positioning their claims to the body of the late Anna Nicole Smith, ostensibly to bury her according to her expressed wishes, but more likely to lay claim to custody over her infant daughter, Danielynn, a potential heiress to an $80-million dollar fortune.
Also in the courtroom resonating from the rafters over the bench
was New York, N.Y., inherent in Judge Seidlin's every word. Of course,
to me, it spoke volumes. There would be no nonsense in the proceeding.
It became obvious by the time the evening news reports were aired that he was taken as a joke. The pundits thought he should recuse himself - and on what grounds, I would ask?
Those reporting had little idea that his behavior was perfectly acceptable in Probate Court, where he could do what he wanted to get what he needed. And by bringing every little thing out in the open, there could be no suggestion of his misunderstanding testimony. Not only would there be court transcripts, there would be millions of viewers.
Granted, his New York dialect and street-wise form of expression were not out of central casting as far as playing the part of a judge. He was not playing a part; he was the judge, and 28 years ago he was the youngest one ever appointed in New York. Although he was speaking the King's English, he didn't sound like any king we'd ever heard.
Judge Seidlin is open and honest and funny. What you see is what you get. No artifice. He knew exactly what he was doing and he did it his way. He'd be the same way ordering a hamburger at McDonald's or checking into the Ritz Carlton. We're just not used to hearing that dialect unless it's in the movies.
His particular dialect evolved (one of Seidlin's favorite words) from children of immigrants playing together on the sidewalks of New York and having words and the way to say them rub off on each other.
From early in the last century, New York was populated by Italian, Eastern Europeans (mostly Jewish) and Irish. In time, the layers upon layers of ethnic conversation turned into a distinct dialect, and we reached what we hear today - which has remained largely regional. I say "largely" because when New Yorkers moved out of the city, their way of speaking spread into northern New Jersey, far outside the five boroughs.
Judge Seidlin called one tall, white-haired, dignified lawyer "Texas," intending no disrespect at all. It was like calling an Army buddy "Brooklyn," as they always did in World War II movies, and not a put-down in any sense. These are terms of endearment. Nobody complained or offered a "consider the source" smirk. They knew who was in charge and took no offense.
Oy, but the analysts: that's another story. "The entire case should be thrown out of court," proffered one. Others, however, like Judge Andrew Napolitano, Fox News Senior Analyst, said Judge Seidlin's "... behavior in a courtroom without a jury was perfectly acceptable." It was as though the analyst/anchors watched one channel and the American public watched another. It sounded as though they were all jealous of attention that might have otherwise come to them.
Complaints were made that he brought in extraneous stuff that had nothing to do with the case. Well, we were hearing a great deal about the petitioners, their backgrounds and exactly what brought them to this moment in time in that courtroom.
It was also important to know just who was juggling their fates. Not much was offered really, except that he had a wife, a child and went to Hunter College in New York. He was also once a New York City cabdriver. This doesn't mean he was a midnight reveler, screeching around corners in Times Square to carry his fares to their dens of inequity. No, he worked his way through college ending with a law degree from St. John's University by driving a cab all day and attending law school at night Editor's Note: See correction below.. Because it was suggested he was seeking to preside over a televised courtroom show, it was said over and over that he was posturing to the camera. Not so. He may have been aware of the comments, but he didn't give damn. His speech and mannerisms would not have been different in either case.
In fact, that was another New York attitude present on the bench. He mixed metaphors, but I knew what he meant. We could finish each other's sentences. He said "Haldeman" and I knew he meant "Erlichman;" he said "spinning" and I knew he meant "twisting," as in "twisting, twisting slowly in the wind." That's when you say to yourself, I got the picture. Granted, New York shorthand should sometimes be reserved for other New Yorkers. The judge was not so unusual for viewers used to "Judge Judy." She'll say, "Don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining" - as her father used to say to her. She has brought her kind of justice, her New York directness, to television viewers for 10 years; other judges have come and gone. As I said of Judge Seidlin, what you see is what you get. Would any of us want more or accept less? If the CBS offer to Seidlin is finalized and he becomes available to us in our living rooms, I'll probably watch. We've been transplanted to Georgia but our New York state of mind remains. Last night we cheered the Oscar winners more for where they were from than for their art. The audience sees Martin Scorsese, brilliant director; we see Martin, a little Italian kid from Flushing.
They see Alan Arkin, character actor at the top of his game; we see little Alan from Brooklyn. When we buy shirts with a Polo logo, we think Ralph Lauren, a little Jewish boy from the Bronx who really made good. Regis Philbin delights us, especially since he is a Bronx boy and went to Cardinal Hayes High School. You'll agree there is a common thread. Aside from the way they speak, they are open and honest and can always be counted on to be themselves.
Some of our greatest actors and actresses are just playing themselves, over and over. Robert DeNiro, New York City; Al Pacino, South Bronx. DeNiro is known for perfectionism in his work and is ferocious in protecting his private life. Still, he is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy, on-screen and off.
Think now of Barbra Streisand, very well known as being from New York. Her nose is not her best feature and yet in the days when she was auditioning for singing jobs, she would laugh at anyone suggesting a nose job. "This is me. Like it or not. This is me." And we've enjoyed about 40 years of her voice, her confidence and her beauty.
I'd like to think Judge Seidlin will rise above all the insults. His weeping on the bench showed genuine concern for the outcome of the probate hearing; he knew that in the minute following his poising of his pen, he'd relinquish all control over the events in the lives of Daniela Lynn Smith, Anna Nicole's infant child. He was pausing as if, well, as if - as if.
Judge Seidlin put me in mind of Peter Falk's "Columbo." Always bumbling, always confused, talking in his inimitable New York accent, about things that had nothing to do with the case, appearing stumped, leaving - and then the comeback: "One more thing." And, yes, one more thing: Judge Seidlin didn't have the luxury of a script.
Correction: Judge Larry Seidlin attended St. John's Law School at night while driving a cab in New York City, but he graduated from the University of Miami Law School in 1976, not from St. John's as reported, according to officials at both schools. A-R regrets the error.