It’s not often that my life intersects with the nation’s court and justice system. Recently, it did, affording me a first-hand glimpse of how fragile the system is at street level, like an aging car held together with duct tape.
The occasion was a subpoena commanding me to appear as a witness for the prosecution in a traffic case involving a man who had sideswiped my car (smashing the review mirror) and then fled the scene. He had been easy for the police to track down because his front bumper license plate had fallen off and was lying in the street.
Such offenses are dealt with at a kind of entry level municipal court. Just before 9:00 a.m., the courtroom opened and I, along with about two dozen assorted others crowded into a cramped seating area at the back of the room, with a waist level wall separating us from the main court area. All of us, total strangers to one another, sat mute (reminded several times to turn off all cellphones and no drinking or eating). We watched as court officials, busy attorneys, uniformed cops and the court bailiff chatted casually, sipped coffee or water, and used their cellphones, while waiting for the judge to appear (she was late, I heard someone confide). Here’s what I saw:
Everyone involved in running the court was white, while almost everyone sitting with me in the back was black. This imbalance persisted through the entire hour I was there, altering only occasionally when a black police officer would come in to check papers or talk quietly with one of the prosecutors. All of the court officials (including the judge) were women; most of the lawyers were men. These are not polished shoe, brilliantly suave and arrogantly deferential attorneys from TV and the movies, instead men and women in cheap, ill-fitting suits, rumpled and harried, with bulging briefcases and perspiration on their foreheads.
in such a court there is the sea of paper passing to and fro, in and out of manila folders, spread on desks, stacked in loose piles. Paper, paper paper. One person sat in front of a computer screen, rapidly making entries, but everyone else seemed caught in a 1980s freeze frame before computers became ubiquitous. I had to wonder why the court system was so behind the rest of the world. Money, I suppose. Or tradition. Or ennui.
When the judge entered, everyone was commanded to stand, and did, but as soon as she took her seat behind her elevated desk, numerous conversations broke out all through the court. Attorneys approached the bench; prosecutors delivered papers, staff and cops huddled, sharing a joke, and a slow steady hum of bustle began. Where I was, behind the low wall, complete silence, as if we were afraid to move.
The man facing the traffic charges in my case was late. An assistant prosecutor took my court summons and whispered that if he didn’t appear soon, I could leave; she’d let me know. Thirty minutes passed with other cases handled. A young man who hadn’t paid a 2004 traffic fine (“Your honor, I just forgot). $100 fine and court costs. A woman and her attorney asking for a continuance on some unspecified charge (granted). These and similar cases settled with the pleasant, impersonal demeanor of an airline gate agent.
It was suddenly my turn, or so I thought, my pulse quickening. The defendant — the man who hit my car and fled — rushed in to the court and stood in front of the judge, begging forgiveness for being late. Couldn’t get a ride downtown, he said. One of the charges, which one I didn’t know, was dismissed. On the other, the man pleaded no contest. Fine: $70 and court costs. Can you pay that today, the judge asked? No, but maybe by next week. OK, go talk to the clerk. The woman prosecutor came back to where I was sitting, gave me back my subpoena, and said I could leave and, if I wanted, I could go upstairs and be paid $6 for my time. She laughed. I left.
There is a sort of rough or approximate justice in this entry level court. The cases that surface here are mostly minor in nature, the floatsam of the life all of us lead against a backdrop of laws and regulations that exist like the stars until something happens — an accident, a failure to follow some arcane, obscure statute we didn’t know we had violated. Cases are routinely handled, like throwing paper into a fireplace, but the paper doesn’t go into the fireplace but rather into the maw of a court record system that in my mind must be burgeoning in underground storage areas, irretrievable.
Why, I asked myself, cannot this part of the justice system be computerized, and cases handled in outlying offices. Why does everyone have to travel downtown to a 1920-era courthouse so heavily visited that the marble steps are sagging from wear?
Why can’t minor offenses be handled administratively? Why do we have to have county and city prosecutors and civil and criminal lawyers passing paper records back back and forth, snickering in private conversations, waiting, watching the clock, checking email, waiting for justice to wend its halting way into the courtroom and ultimately on to the shoulders of people — witnesses and defendants and friends — seated nervously in the back or pacing in the halls outside.
I had, I thought as I left, brushed up against a rickety girder holding up this particular municipal court and thousands just like it in cities and towns across America. It’s a “justice” system that sort of works, but really just exists in a stale, ponderous world you don’t ever really want to visit unless you have to.