Planting the Flag


(Fact - Based on Memory)




The Office of the Chief Justice of the Probate and Family Court frantically made a series of urgent phone calls.  They needed an American flag and they needed it fast. 


The Chief Justice had set up a “satellite” court session at the Boston University Law School.  It was a good arrangement that worked well.  The court system gained access to the small but usable courtroom where the law school held its moot court competitions and the law school got actual court cases being heard on site and accessible to observation by the students.  The satellite session drew cases from three counties – Middlesex, Suffolk and Norfolk and judges rotated in and out of Boston University, usually for a month long assignment.


Now the Office of the Chief Judge was calling around to various courts looking to have  a flag and a flag stand delivered to Boston University immediately, but why the rush?


It seems that Judge Sumner Kaplan had just been assigned to the B.U. session. When he arrived and noticed there was no American flag in the courtroom, he made it clear to all interested parties that he would not take the bench until there was one in the courtroom. 


Was Judge Kaplan piqued at being assigned to B.U.’s cramped quarters, you might ask?  Was he a prima donna making much ado about nothing?  Was he a patriotic nut case?  The answers are no, no and no.


Sumner Kaplan was a humble, soft spoken good man, a member of that generation who sacrificed and accomplished so much.  He entered the Army in 1941 as a private and rose to the rank of lieutenant in 1943.  By 1963, he was a brigadier general in the United States Army Reserves. 


The law, Kaplan told his clerk Jimmy Collins, requires that there be an American flag in each courtroom.  Jimmy couldn’t find the statutory reference but his sense was that Judge Kaplan wanted there to be an American flag as a matter of personal principle if not law, so Jimmy, a capable and resourceful clerk, went looking for a flag. 


When he returned, he approached Judge Kaplan.  “Judge”, he said, “I want to make sure you know I’m not being disrespectful, because I’m certainly not, but there is no flag coming from any of the other courts and I couldn’t find one at any of the stores around here.  I just wonder if we could get by with this until the Chief Justice sends an appropriate one.”


At that, Jimmy took out one of those tiny paper flags attached to tooth picks – the ones you stick into cupcakes.  He then took a nice new Styrofoam coffee cup, turned it over and planted the American flag on top.  Jimmy waited for Judge Kaplan to respond.  The judge smiled and said in his typical calm, measured voice, “That’ll do, Jimmy.  That’ll do.” 


And so it was that the cases scheduled for the B.U. Session  that day and the days following went forward, even though the new larger flag did not arrive for another three weeks.  At the end of every day’s session, the Styrofoam coffee cup and flag were locked in a drawer then put out again each morning at the start of the court session.  As for Judge Kaplan, he is etched into the folklore of the trial court’s history: grounded in principle as a gentleman, general, and judge; defender of the flag and all that it stands for.


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