Veterans Court Hits the Beach in Philadelphia
John Fleming is a 58-year-old African American born and raised in Philadelphia who served in the Army from 1969 to 1972 maintaining nuclear weapons in silos in Germany.
It was 10:45 AM on Friday outside Courtroom 1006 in Philadelphia’s Criminal Justice Center. Fleming had been “caught with an illegal substance." Instead of taking his chances in the regular court system in Philadelphia, he had volunteered to participate in Philadelphia’s Veterans Court.
He was pacing in the hall. He had been told to be there at 10 AM for court that would not begin until 11 AM. Earlier there had been some kind of misunderstanding and he had to come back. He was impatient.
When Municipal Court Judge Patrick Dugan arrived at a little after 11 AM, as he does every Friday, he opened the court by explaining that Veterans Court was a completely voluntary court and that those in attendance could at any time choose to leave the program and take their chances in the regular court system.
Dugan, a man in his early fifties with a ready smile and a no-nonsense demeanor, called Fleming as the first case of old business.
Fleming walked from the gallery through a swinging gate to stand between the court’s full-time district attorney and its public defender. He stood there facing the judge wearing a white Houston Astros shirt. Fleming had intentionally worn the Astros shirt to tweak the judge, who is very public about being an enthusiastic Philadelphia sports fan. Dugan is famous for putting on his re-election flyer that he “Prefers cheesesteak wiz witout” and he “HATES the Dallas Cowboys.” Fleming had worn a Lakers shirt to his last court hearing. The shirt provoked a few minutes of good-natured, mock-hostile back-and-forth wise-cracking. Then, the judge turned to Fleming’s case.
Judge Dugan wanted to know if Fleming had been holding up his end of the contract he signed with Veterans Court to attend rehab treatment. From all the reports Dugan had in Fleming’s file, Fleming was good.
“Keep up the good work,” Dugan told him. Dugan and court staff looked at their calendars and gave Fleming a court date three week later to, again, check in.
“He’s a great guy,” Fleming later said of Dugan. “He’s fair and straight forward. He knows what’s going on. But he also won’t take no bullshit from you.”
That Friday, many of the veterans appearing before Dugan seemed to feel the same way. A few, however, were there to refuse the veterans court and be re-assigned to court dates in the regular court. One 60ish Vietnam veteran who did this was outraged over a charge that he had lied on a gun registration form about an Abuse Prevention Order from Brockton, Massachusetts. He wanted to plead not guilty and fight the case. If he lost, of course, he had a chance of being sent to “State Road,” the array of prisons in the northeast area of the city.