‘A Judge’s Mind And A Hero’s Heart’

Over the weekend, this judge saved a man’s life.

Welcome to Original Jurisdiction, the latest legal publication by me, David Lat. You can learn more about Original Jurisdiction by reading its About page, you can reach me by email at davidlat@substack.com, and you can register to receive updates on this signup page.

I was planning to write about new Supreme Court opinions today, but as I chronicled on Twitter, this morning at SCOTUS was not super-exciting. So I’m going to take a little “frolic and detour” and share with you a heartwarming, human-interest story involving a judge, the type of story I used to cover on Above the Law and Underneath Their Robes back in the day.

I first heard about it from Judge Don Willett of the Fifth Circuit (a SCOTUS shortlister himself in the last Administration). He put me in touch with Judge Robert (Bobby) Bell, a longtime member of the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals, and a friend of Judge Willett’s from their time together in Duke Law’s Judicial Studies LLM program.

On Saturday night, Judge Bell was enjoying a nice evening out with his wife and daughter. They had just seen The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard described by one critic as “the raunchy action/comedy we need right now,” and by Judge Bell to me as “silly fun” — and were relaxing over dinner at Belle Isle Restaurant and Brewery in Oklahoma City.

Judge Bell was seated facing his wife Carolyn and their daughter, his back to the rest of the dining room. They were in the middle of their entrees; His Honor was having a burger.

Suddenly, Carolyn’s face was taken over by a look of pure terror. “Oh my God, Bobby, do something!”

At that moment, the judge felt someone tapping him on the shoulder. He turned around.

It was an elderly woman, and she was in a state of panic. Her husband, an older gentleman, was on his feet and turning blue. The waitstaff was frozen, just standing there.

When he was in college at the University of Oklahoma, Bell had worked as a lifeguard — and in that instant, the training he had received decades ago all came rushing back to him. Seized by a preternatural sense of calm, he stood up, went behind the man, and started performing the Heimlich maneuver.

Bell had learned the Heimlich maneuver in a lifesaving training back in 1987 — and he had never performed it on anyone in real life. He performed it on the man for about 30 seconds, which felt like an eternity. The man was frail, and Bell feared that he was breaking the man’s ribs.

Finally, a piece of steak flew out of the man’s mouth like a cork popping off a champagne bottle. Able to breathe once again, the man turned around and gave Bell a big smile. And, for the record, the man’s ribs were just fine.

The couple finished their meal without incident. Before leaving the restaurant, they stopped by Judge Bell’s table to thank him again for saving the man’s life.

Judge Don Willett was not surprised by any of this.

“Bobby is a fabulous judge and an even better friend,” Judge Willett told me. “It’s unsurprising that he sprang into action, knowing exactly what to do and instinctively doing it. Bobby has a judge’s mind and a hero’s heart.”


Thanks for reading Original Jurisdiction, the latest legal publication by me, David Lat. You can learn more about Original Jurisdiction by reading its About page, you can reach me by email at davidlat@substack.com, and you can share this post or subscribe to Original Jurisdiction using the buttons below.

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