Martin Clark

It’s safe to conclude that the judicial system has any number of shortcomings—certainly I have my weaknesses and failings, and it goes without saying that there are difficulties built into the courts that need attention and correction. Still, most of the folks with whom I work are honest, focused, and decent people who—every day—deal with things both mundane and Byzantine and manage to do so with a good measure of competence and evenhanded calm. While we are aware of our problems—the delays in bringing cases to trial, the perceived advantages that wealth brings to litigants, and the intentional mystery that shrouds all things legal—there are those tasks we do well and capably. And just like people in any other trade, we are gratified to know when we have done a good turn and made the right call.

Today I received a nice note from Tolly Barton. I met him in 1992, when I had just started work in juvenile court. Tolly was around 10 years old and lived in a vacuum, skipping school, breaking into homes, and meandering pell-mell through the streets and alleys of Martinsville at 3 in the morning. His mom, Sylvia, was a crack-head and a hooker; his father was a shiftless alcoholic who lived miles away. Tolly stayed at his mom’s welfare apartment with his older brother who was all of 12.

The first time I saw him, Tolly was in court for another round of theft and truancy, and he started to cry … 10 years old, big head, round eyes, his hands over his face, standing there in front of a Tuesday afternoon courtroom full of druggies and wife-beaters and scofflaws, hauled into afternoon court with the adults because he had—naturally—missed the juvenile docket earlier in the day. He was sobbing and sucking in air because … he was … embarrassed … humiliated … because … of his shoes. I look down and he’s wearing these black plastic Bobos, and they are pretty much ugly and worn out. Tolly’s a kid we all like; you like what you see in his face and you marvel at how resourceful he must be. So we all pitch in, and after court one of the city cops drives him to Footlocker and we buy him a pair of Air Jordans at cost. A week or so later he uses the new sneaks to beat it out of a neighbor’s home with a stolen boom box. When he shows up to be tried for lifting the boom box … guess what … no Jordans. They’re gone. Where? His probation officer tells me that his mother traded the shoes for crack.

Tolly finally ended up with a good P.O., a fine foster family, and a lot of us looking over his shoulder. His P.O. would bring him by to visit once a month. He’d come in my office and pick up things off my desk and wander around, looking uncomfortable. We’d talk about sports or school. I liked seeing him, but sometimes there wasn’t a great deal to say. I visited with him once a month or so until I started working in circuit court in 1995. In 1996, I was the judge who sentenced his mother for selling rock cocaine. She had the gall to tell me that she couldn’t go to jail because she was a single mother, raising two young boys. I reminded her that they were in foster care and had been for a good while.

In his note, addressed to “Judge Martin,” Tolly says he’s going to graduate from high school. I’m not sure I would recognize him, and I’m not foolish enough or vain enough to think that he made it through because of a pair of sneaks and hanging out in my office. He’s around because of his resilience, his wits, and the iron in his spirit, and he’s around because of a damn fine P.O. and a foster family that raised him the right way. But it was nice to hear from him; makes all the noise from the critics and naysayers a bit less shrill.

All the information contained in these entries is available from court files and public records. Nothing confidential or privileged is revealed herein. Any case mentioned is a concluded case, no longer before Judge Clark. While those familiar with the facts of various cases will recognize the individuals involved, fictitious names will be used throughout this journal.