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Schmidt’s savvy sword

By John Driscoll
The Times-Standard
May 5, 2008

Don’t ever try to sell Judge Richard Schmidt a lemon.

The U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge overseeing the Pacific Lumber Co.’s case in Texas is a fascinating character who I feel I’ve gotten to know in the countless hours spent listening the court proceedings in a windowless conference room here at the Times-Standard.

This judge has absorbed 15 months of arguments between some incredible lawyers, people who could sell you the rubber tree in a tire dealer’s office and leave you thinking you got a deal on a wheel. These attorneys are so good, that for months, at the end of every argument, I was convinced the case was swinging in their favor.

After hours and hours of testimony on arcane topics like discount rates, growth curves, scheduled amortization and other such gobbledygook, Schmidt would suddenly interrupt and say something like, “Well, you’ve got to come up with the money.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard Schmidt utter a word of more than two syllables. While his Texas drawl might sway some to think him simple, I’m pretty clear by now that Schmidt’s ability to see things simply makes him anything but simple.

Schmidt has had to mediate fights, see through ploys, anticipate the unexpected and inject humor when the courtroom sounded like it might explode. He seemed to understand early on that while the case might hinge on the value of Palco’s timberlands, that there is a lot more riding on the resolution than the thickness of some New York investor’s wallet.

Schmidt has done away with suspicions early in the case that he might be overly friendly to Charles Hurwitz, the Texas financier whose Maxxam Inc. brought the company to bankruptcy. Schmidt is nobody’s stooge. He has used the sword of the law with great precision and against every party.

It is that same sword that he will have to use to clear the field in the final battle. Despite his apparent sympathy to the plight of a place and a people he doesn’t know, it is not sympathy that will decide the matter. Will the law protect the little people, this little place? To be honest, I’m not sure.

Schmidt has shown himself to be impervious to mere salesmanship, and it’s a good thing, because I’m certain that all of the lawyers in the room and on the phone were used car salesmen in their previous lives. Schmidt has patiently kicked the tires of every car in the lot, and test-driven the ones worth driving. He’s looked under their hoods and checked their titles.

While a final resolution is uncertain, I feel confident that Schmidt’s not going to drive a lemon off the lot.

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