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Sat, 10 Jun 2000 17:14:49 -0400 (EDT)

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A Beneficent Bench

Typically on a Friday, Fairfax Judge Donald P. McDonough operates at assembly-line speed: 150 landlord-tenant disputes, one right after the other. But at 10 a.m. yesterday, McDonough's efficient system of justice paused. Something about the middle-aged deaf couple standing before him, and facing eviction for falling $250 behind in their rent, got to him.<P>
Though no one yet knew it, this dispute would be different from any of the thousands McDonough had heard in more than a decade on the bench. When the landlord insisted on a judgment against the deaf couple, McDonough abruptly left the courtroom, returning a minute later with two crisp $100 bills and a $50 in his hands. <P>
"Consider it paid," he said, leaning over the bench and handing the money--his own money--to the landlord's stunned attorney. As a sign-language interpreter translated for defendants Deborah Morris and Louis Swann, Morris pressed her hands to her chest in unaffected rapture, according to several people who were present.<P>
"Only in America," said Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr., adding that in his 33 years in office, "I've heard of judges suspending judgments. I've never heard of a judge chipping in."<P>
Bailiff Erin Cox, who was in the courtroom when the scene took place, agreed. "Not something you see much," Cox said. "Not something you see ever."<P>
After McDonough handed over the money, another strange thing happened: Four attorneys present for other cases spontaneously whipped out their checkbooks to give more, according to Cox. She said the lawyers told her they planned to give the $1,250 to the couple, but as of last night, Morris and Swann said they had not received it.<P>
The made-for-TV courtroom drama began with Swann and Morris telling their story. They were short of money, again. Married in October, they learned only recently that their new status as a couple meant a sharp reduction in Morris's disability benefits. Without the aid, they couldn't pay their full $630 monthly rent.<P>
Using an intepreter, Morris passionately argued the couple's case in sign language. They were virtually broke. They thought marrying would save them money. The caprices of the disability rules caught them by surprise. Things seemed hopeless.<P>
The landlord's attorney, exasperated by what he called a string of late payments, asked the judge to order full restitution and eviction. McDonough sighed and asked if settlement was possible. No, said Andrew Lawrence, the lawyer. <P>
A former legal aid attorney, McDonough looked down at the bench for a long half-minute while no one and nothing moved in his courtroom. Finally, he wheeled back and looked at Lawrence. "What if I pay it?" McDonough asked.<P>
Lawrence's mouth slid open, an observer said. The judge turned toward Cox, his longtime General District Court bailiff. "Let's go, Erin," he said, and without another word exited the courtroom through the door behind him. According to Cox, the judge went to his briefcase and pulled out the cash. <P>
Back on the bench moments later, he quickly brought the case to an end, handing Lawrence the money and scrawling on the case folder, in illegible writing that would make a doctor proud, "Dismissed as paid."<P>
"I'd been praying that someone would help us with the rent, but I wasn't prepared for this," Morris said a few hours later at the couple's cluttered apartment just off Route 1 near Fort Belvoir.<P>
Theirs was a sweet fairy tale of rekindled romance. They met at a Maryland school for the deaf in the 1960s, then became reacquainted five years ago at a school reunion. They share their two-bedroom apartment with a white cat named Snowy.<P>
But real life is hard. Disability benefits for Morris went from $500 a month before her marriage to $91 a month and then were cut altogether, she said. Swann's wages as a day laborer don't come close to covering the mounting bills.<P>
"They said they were going to evict us if we couldn't pay," said Morris, 48. "Then the judge took money from his own pocket. . . . I couldn't say a word. . . . It just blew me away."<P>
McDonough, 55, declined to be interviewed. But Cox said the judge's actions were not a surprise. "He's a very kind man who listens to everybody," she said. "You feel you got your day in court when you're in there with him."<P>
Not everyone in the courtroom shared her ecstasy. Lawrence, the attorney for Mount Vernon Apartments, called McDonough's action "highly unusual" and said the judge, whom he characterized as "very pro-tenant," unfairly cast his client as a coldhearted landlord unwilling to give a deaf couple a break.<P>
"She was embarrassed by this," Lawrence said of the apartment manager, whom he declined to identify. "She felt it was somewhat unfair. . . . The couple were behind [in their rent] before, and slow catching up."<P>
Lawrence said it wasn't the first time the couple had been taken to court over late rent payments. Still, he said, "we certainly didn't intend to be the heavies here and put these people out on the street. We were going to be working with them."<P>
Although the landlord rejected McDonough's invitation for a settlement, Lawrence said the judge could have called both sides to the bench and quietly settled the case. Failing that, the judge could have set a trial date, essentially giving the couple a few weeks to make good on what they owed.<P>
Even as McDonough reached over the bench to hand Lawrence the money, the attorney asked to drop the suit. McDonough would have none of it, declaring the matter done, dismissed, dead.<P>
Cox said she'll never forget the expression on Morris's face. "She had that stunned look, like this was the last thing she'd ever expect to see in a courtroom. . . . You don't think of judges this way."<P>
McDonough himself remained out of sight most of the afternoon. A fellow judge called him a "very modest, generous man" embarrassed over the attention.<P>
Staff writers Patricia Davis and Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.