Lawrence S. Huffman: Careful what you sign


By Lawrence S. Huffman - Contributing Columnist



There is an old saw that goes something like “a woman’s work is never done.” Well, Judge John H. Davison found out that it also applied to judges on occasion. Having straightened out the procedure by which notaries public were appointed, he discovered that all notaries were not adhering to the law in exercising their authority.

In the early years of World War II, most young men and many young women were off in many places defending their country and not able to defend themselves in court actions at home. To prevent default judgments being taken against them, Congress enacted a law known as the Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act of 1940. This law is still in effect and means that if you want a judgment against a person who does not appear before the court, you must file an affidavit (a notarized statement) saying that the person is not on active duty in the military service. For instance, in a divorce case, if the defendant failed to appear at the final hearing and had filed no pleadings, the court could not sign the final order divorcing the parties unless a military affidavit was on file in the case.

Such was the situation when an attorney showed up for a routine uncontested divorce hearing before the Honorable John H. Davison. The hearing proceeded with the usual testimony of marriage, grounds, property, etc. After listening to the evidence, the court was presented the order for divorce to sign which would, of course, terminate the marriage. Judge Davison looked over the file and everything seemed to be in order. He then sifted down through the paperwork in the file and said to the lawyer, “Where is your military affidavit? It is not in the file.” The lawyer responded by saying, “I have it here, judge.” With that, he dipped into his file and produced what appeared to be a perfectly well done military affidavit, signed by the woman seeking the divorce and the lawyer as the notary public.

All is well! Right? Wrong! Some sixth sense alerted Judge Davison that all was not what it appeared to be. Military affidavit in hand, he turned to the woman witness and said to her, “Is your husband in the armed forces?” To which she replied, “No.” Judge Davison said, “And you swear to that?” She said, “Yes, I do.”

All is well! Right? Wrong! Because he then said to her, “And you swore that was the truth when you signed this affidavit, correct?” A perplexed look came over her face at that time and she said, “I don’t remember doing that.” At that, his head came up and he gave the lawyer a frown, a glimpse from his steely eyes, and said, “Tell me just what happened when you signed this affidavit.” She said, “Well, I got a letter in the mail from my lawyer to sign this paper, send it back to him in the envelope, and meet him here for the hearing, and that’s what I did.” “Well,” says Judge Davison, “this part at the bottom of the affidavit where it says that it was sworn to before him and signed in his presence, is a lie, is that right?” No answer. “Well, then, the Notary Public, your lawyer, is telling two lies if he says you did, isn’t he?” No answer.

The lawyer, of course, sat there watching and listening to this discourse and, of course, knew what was coming. Judge Davison then turned to the lawyer, put on his best stern visage, and began to berate him in his very best style. He accused him of representing to the court that he had done something that he knew was false, that is, having the witness before him when the affidavit was signed, and second, claiming that he had administered an oath to the witness when he had not. The facts were so clear that there really was no arguing about it. Judge Davison continued berating the lawyer for lying to the court, embarrassing his client by the failure to present a proper affidavit, causing the court to dismiss the divorce case, and all other manner of dire consequences. This went on for about 20 minutes in Judge Davison’s best style.

He finally gave the lawyer back the unsigned order of divorce, kept the offending faux affidavit, and stalked out of the courtroom. This was all done while the rest of the waiting uncontested divorce petitioners for the day looked on. Lawyer and client left the courtroom and I heard her say to him, “Am I divorced now?” I’m sure she eventually got divorced, probably in the other courtroom, but not that day!

Moral of the Story: Be careful what you sign.

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By Lawrence S. Huffman

Contributing Columnist

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