Judge Nicholas Byrne realizes he is powerless against the law, and Leonard has a very interesting question for Kate Littlejohn.
Credit: Mitch Haaseth/ABC

All please rise: the Honorable Judge Nicholas Byrne is presiding…over the Mother Court on this episode of For the People — and our hearts. Judge Byrne has been relegated to the background for the first few episodes of For the People, but he’s front and center in “World’s Greatest Judge,” and it is about time.

Judge Byrne is having a great day. He wakes up in his lovely house, he comes downstairs to find his lunch packed for him, and then he’s off to interpret the law for the day. Unfortunately, the day doesn’t stay great for long. He reads about the death of a young man named Julian. Julian was serving a 10-year prison sentence on drug charges because he happened to be over at his neighbor’s house playing video games when that house got busted with a whole heap of cocaine hiding inside. He went to prison because he was playing video games, and now he’s dead. It is tragic and horrible and just plain sad. He doesn’t say so, but it’s pretty clear that Byrne is the one who sentenced Julian. Judge Byrne is rattled.

So, of course he is presiding over a very similar case today. Meet Rodrigo Puente. He was caught carrying 57 grams of meth. As Kate Littlejohn points out to Seth (now she simply waits for Seth in his office to cut down on the time wasted by having him interrupt her in her own office), 57 grams is about as big as the pack of sticky notes she’s holding. It is very minimal, but anything 50 grams or over carries a minimum mandatory sentence of 10 years. Rodrigo is a good, family man, who was carrying the package to make a little extra money — he never asked what was in the package, because he didn’t want to know. Byrne knows the punishment does not fit the crime here, and he does not want to be forced to give Rodrigo that kind of sentence. And in a very un-judge like move, Byrne makes that known to the court. He basically tells Seth that the U.S. Attorney’s office needs to get itself together and come up with a new plan.

Seth relays the bold message to Roger who is still all “the law is the law and we enforce the law.” But when Roger hears the judge making such a scene, he’s taken aback. Still, he tells Seth to press on. They aren’t dropping this.

That’s not going to work for Byrne. He reminds Seth of his first week ethical violations and immediately Seth is much more amenable to Byrne’s request to talk to Roger Gunn. In a great little reveal, we learn that back in the day Byrne was Roger’s boss in the District Attorney’s office, and he instilled in his protegé the whole “uphold the law as it is, at all costs” mentality. Back then, Byrne had no desire to consider peoples’ feelings on the law — he wanted his lawyers to win their cases. Suffice it to say, Roger is not open to negotiations and reminds Judge Byrne that there could be consequences to his actions.

Jill Carlan, on the other hand, is definitely surprised, but happy, that Byrne is changing his hardline stance on the mandatory minimum, but it is good for her client. Unfortunately, if Roger won’t amend the charges and Rodrigo Puente doesn’t have anything like the name of someone else involved to offer the prosecution, there isn’t much anyone can do.

Byrne takes matters into his own hands. As the trial proceeds, Byrne begins questioning the witness. It gets heated and Roger’s repeated objections are ignored. The whole gang ends up in Byrne’s chambers. Yeah, he’s allowed to question people in his courtroom, but this is getting out of control. Byrne figures why not keep this train rolling: He’s going to inform the jury that if they convict Rodrigo Puente, Byrne will be forced to give him 10 years. Informing the jury of sentencing is a big ol’ no-no and Roger is livid. Jill’s all like, “yeah this is crazy, but I’m just going to hang out quietly over here.” Byrne isn’t budging.

Roger and Seth visit Delap to get his take on the matter. Roger suggests removing the quantity from the indictment, therefore removing Byrne’s conflict with the sentencing. That’s not how Delap, or the U.S. District Attorney’s office, rolls. Delap wants Roger to file a writ blocking Byrne. If Byrne doesn’t comply, his career will be over. This doesn’t sit well with Roger. But you know who will follow the boss’s orders? Seth Oliver. He’s all in on that “the law is the law is the law” thing and gladly files the writ. “Young and ruthless,” Delap calls him. This really is a new Seth Oliver! (Recap continues on next page)

Byrne gets a pep talk from Tina Krissman, who reminds the conflicted judge that he is a good, fair black man, and he can do far greater good sitting on the bench than he can walking away from it to make a point. And so, Byrne solemnly heads into court to give Rodrigo Puente his sentence. You guys, we’ve had lots of great Closing Argument Moments on this show, but Judge Byrne’s Sentencing Speech Moment blows past all of them. He talks about how different New York is since he arrived here decades ago, including the lowest crime rate in Manhattan’s history, but he is ready to ask the question no one else is — what is the cost? Because of these disproportionate mandatory minimums, “we are cannibalizing a generation of New Yorkers.” People like Rodrigo Puente are the cost and Byrne is angry and so very sorry that he is unable to protect people who look like him from “laws not meant to rehabilitate, but to destroy.” Rodrigo Puente will be serving 10 years in a federal prison.

With that weariness hanging over him, Judge Byrne visits Julian’s mother to apologize to her, as well. Yes, he was the judge who sentenced Julian and he feels, deep in his heart, that he has failed that boy and so many others. It’ll be interesting to see where Judge Byrne (also Roger Gunn!) goes from here.

Never fear: There is some lighter, soapier fare taking place across the Southern District of New York, too. Allison is on duty this week and gets handed a wine forgery case in which her client is a very handsome man named Toby. There’s not a ton of logic to his whole explanation of why he started selling forged wine: He loves wine so much and he was appalled to see the rampant fraud in the industry and discover that people only cared about money, not the craft, so he got into the fraud business as revenge. But he is very flirty and says words like “supple” and “transcendent” and “here is a bottle of wine as a gift,” which are all things that get Allison very hot and bothered.

Eventually, Allison realizes that her client’s deep love for wine is what will help him get rid of these charges. She has him demonstrate his considerable wine-tasting and forgery-sensing skills in front of the other side and they are impressed. Allison offers a deal: Toby is small potatoes in the wine fraud world, so why not drop the charges and retain Toby’s exclusive services? He can help them bring down major players. It works!

Over in the prosecutor’s office, Leonard gets handed a high-profile investigation into a Congressman’s affair and hush money that he paid his mistress’s husband. Roger attended the Congressman’s wedding (“The first dance was to “Mustang Sally.” I knew it wasn’t going to work out.”), so he cannot pursue the case, but he offers Leonard up as a replacement to Delap. Delap has no idea who Leonard is, but is ready and waiting to be impressed. Impressing the big guy is all Leonard’s ever wanted, so you know he takes this investigation on with aplomb.

He needs to determine if there is enough hard evidence to prove the Congressman misappropriated campaign funds to cover up his affair. All of the evidence is circumstantial, so Leonard would have a tough time actually charging the guy. The other tricky aspect of this case: Leonard’s mother. Senator Knox has caught wind of the investigation and advises her son to think about what this could do to his future career. It seems she is looking to build a Knox political dynasty. Leonard comes to find that the Congressman’s major donor is also one of his mother’s; is she trying to dissuade him from taking on the case for selfish reasons? Apparently there is precedent for this. Guys, you just know that Leonard and his mother are going to find themselves on opposing sides eventually, right?

After looking at his options and the little evidence he has (and perhaps considering his mother’s warning), he decides against filing charges. It is most definitely not the first impression he wanted to leave on Delap.

Let’s get real though: None of this matters because the only important part of Leonard’s storyline this week has to do with Kate Littlejohn. Blunt Cut is feeling very rebuffed and embarrassed after she “sent up a test balloon” and Leonard did not grab said balloon…or get in said balloon? I’m not really clear on if this is a regular or hot air balloon. Regardless, she is being extra cold toward him and has no time to stroke his ego as he figures out what to do with his case. After he decides not to move forward with it, he confronts Kate. What’s up with her? The two argue a bit and trade some serious insults (do not get in an insult war with Blunt Cut; she wins every time), and they get closer and closer until Leonard cuts through the sexual tension. “Would we work?” he asks. He knows she was asking him out the other day, but he said no because he was worried they would never work and it would ruin their friendship. Now he’s not so sure. But Kate isn’t ready to be so vulnerable, so she tells him that asking him to drinks the other night was a friendly gesture. He must have misread the situation. Alas, they do not make out. YET.

Yes, having this show dig into the complexities of the law is great and all, but what For the People really needs is more people making out. We’re due, guys.

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