"All rise," said the bailiff.
The businessman at the defendant's table had bragged for years about not paying his taxes. He'd strolled around his offices, coffee cup in hand, and informed his clients and employees of it. His wife had been his bookkeeper before they were married. She'd hired a fine accountant. Between them, they kept his various businesses solvent, took advantage of the tax codes, got him breaks and incentives, and generally let him do as he pleased to grow his businesses.
At the close of his fiscal year, he'd thrown a lavish party. He'd given a short speech to his staff and their spouses. After the speech, he'd stepped off the podium and commented about how much his business saved on taxes.
To his surprise, one of the women in attendance who overheard him turned out to be a tax collector. She related the story to her co-workers. They told their supervisor. A week later, the businessman got a summons to tax court.
The summons demanded that he produce records to justify his tax payments, which he knew were too low.
"You don't understand," he explained to his wife, who had taken the news calmly. He waved the summons in front of her face. "We could lose everything."
"If we we got everything by cheating," she replied. "Then we deserve to lose it."
"You really don't understand." He shook his head.
He tried to explain to his accountant but the fellow insisted on sending the requested files.
"There's really no other way," the accountant explained. "We've got time to explain ourselves. We'll get a hearing."
The day of the hearing came too soon. He didn't feel ready even though he'd lost sleep as he prepared. He'd dropped weight. He'd neglected sales in his businesses because he felt too distracted to follow up leads. On the dreaded morning, he dressed in his best charcoal suit. He tried to tell himself it would help. His wife said she approved of his haircut. He told her she looked wonderful, which she did to him, at least, in her burgundy outfit. He didn't bother to ask what it cost. It hardly mattered. Together, they met their tax attorney in front of the courthouse.
Even though this was tax court, not a criminal court, a policeman checked the three at the front door. After conversing with him, they followed the building's map to their courtroom, where they were met by a bailiff. Although the bailiff wore a suit, he kept a badge pinned to it that marked him as an officer of the law.
"How does that work?" asked the businessman. "Aren't you a lawyer working for the judge?"
"While on duty, I have arrest authority," said the bailiff. "People who don't pay taxes are thieves. Schools, roads, police, and all of the other aspects of government that you benefit from depend on each person doing their part. If the court finds that you've cheated, you can go to jail. And if so, I'll take you."
"That means you guys, too," he turned to his wife and his accountant.
His accountant gave him a tense smile. His wife grabbed him by the shoulder, pulled him closer, and hissed that he needed to behave.
When the judge entered, the bailiff instructed everyone to rise. After a few seconds, he motioned for them to sit again. The businessman sprung to his feet immediately after.
"I want to protest being called here," he said. "We are citizens of high standing."
"Sit down," snapped the judge.
"You may have misunderstood the nature of this session," the judge continued in a flat voice. "The court allows some cases at the option of the taxpayer in order to protest tax rulings against them. This is not such a case. There is no ruling. This is an investigative proceeding. The tax office issued a lien against you and all of your businesses for tax deficiency. Your records have been reviewed by the office to determine the amount of deficiency."
He turned to the prosecution table.
"I've read your case, prosecutor. The amount you've listed here is unusually small," he said. "Do you have anything more to add?"
"We were surprised by what we found, your honor." The prosecutor stood but he shrugged in apology. "We would ordinarily not bring such a case."
"Still, you have a finding of deficiency." The judge turned to the accountant. "And you are the tax preparer?"
"Yes, your honor." The bailiff nodded for him to rise. He stood.
"Do you have an explanation for the deficiency?"
"I do. As you'll see in my written response, there is no deficiency by any standard. In addition, my client donated funds to particular causes and to the general government collection."
The judge rapped his gavel. "The preparer's role is clear. I find the records in order. I've reviewed them in their entirety. They're commendable. In fact, these business entities deliberately overpaid. The donation of company money to the government is also noted. Would you care to explain the difference between this behavior and the bragging of the defendant about cheating?"
"My client is a very competitive man and wants to feel he has an advantage, your honor." The accountant held himself with his hands behind his back. "But in every quarter, his partner has me pay the taxes in full for each company. At the end of every year, she pays extra. That is her preference."
"You are the partner, madam." The judge turned to the wife. "What do you have to say?"
She looked to the bailiff for permission, then rose.
"I've always felt that we've very much benefited from our government," she said with a nod. "We have to pay for it. I feel that we're luckier than other families so I pay a bit more."
"Your husband is co-owner of all of your businesses." The judge looked down at the records in front of him. "This court has the power to assign him to community service for misrepresenting his tax situation. But I understand from your written statement that your husband does substantial community service and has done it on a quarterly basis for at least eighteen years."
"He does. That is correct."
"Noted." He folded his hands in front of him on the bench. "In the interests of the court's time, I feel that it's best if the court doesn't hear your husband speak. I'll accept his community service as a given. You are free to go."
The bailiff motioned for them to all stand. They rose and bowed. The businessman staggered. He found that his limbs had gone cold. But as he moved a little more, he felt the warmth return.
His hands were trembling as the three of them left the room.
"You were the one who wanted me to do charity services," he whispered as the door closed behind them. He put his hand on his wife's shoulder. "You said it was to make up for what we didn't pay in taxes."
"Yes," said this wife. She gave him a warm smile but with cool, knowing eyes. "That's precisely what it was for."