As all of us know, Atticus Finch is the iconic lawyer portrayed by Gregory Peck in the black-and-white film classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, the movie of the Harper Lee novel. He is repeatedly referred to as an “inspiration” by countless lawyers and, I’m sure, even more law students. He courageously but unsuccessfully defended an innocent African-American unjustly accused of raping a white woman in a small Southern town. A telling example of defending an unpopular cause. Good movie, for sure, but for my money not as inspiring as Twelve Angry Men.
In any event, Counselor Finch was brought to mind recently by our own Carl Secola. I was trying a criminal case in the Litchfield Courthouse when Carl passed by on his way to a pretrial. “I always enjoy coming up here”, he said, “It makes me think I’m Atticus Finch”. Carl was right. Admittedly I hadn’t thought in those terms before, but as I looked around I knew exactly what he meant.
The Litchfield Courthouse is a step back in time, way back. It’s a two-story, narrow, churchlike stone building on the Litchfield Green. The lock-up is in the basement amidst the heating equipment. The first floor courtroom is sizeable, at least the well of it is. There’s a rail at the back and two rows of chairs. On a good day, there’s never enough room at the calendar call. The judge often enters in his/ her robe from the hallway, jostling past the defendants, spectators, attorneys and others of the great unwashed. The furniture is old. Counsel tables are narrow and short and during trials, plaintiffs and defendants, or in my chosen specialty, defendants and prosecutors, sit closer together than the fourth graders at the Stony Creek School of my youth.
The second floor courtroom is also small. It’s high ceilinged, narrow and cramped. The rest room is in the jury room when there’s no trial or somewhere in back when there is. Back behind there’s a library presided over by an extremely helpful librarian who sits almost on a window ledge, surrounded by a printer, a computer and a copy machine. There are books to the ceiling on shelves with rows so narrow that it’s hard for even one person to pass through without knocking over some important tome-maybe even Tapping Reeve’s personal copy of Black’s Law Dictionary.
The floor, like the parquet court at the old Boston Garden, has certain spots, known only to the locals, which creak and moan when trod upon, good to know when you want to distract jurors. And the jury box is, indeed, an Atticus Finch set piece. Six wooden chairs on the top row, six in the lower with a wooden railing from which hangs a dull brown curtain which my partner, the esteemed senior Grudberg, refers to as a modesty screen.
Trying a case there is like trying a case in your living room. Theatrics are inappropriate. Every word between counsel and client is likely overheard by friend and foe alike. Again, when seated, you are so close to your adversary that Mennen Speed Stick is provided next to the water pitcher. And, as a bonus for those engaged in criminal representation, the microphone on the defense side is bolted to the table so angry pro-se’s can’t use it to club their favorite prosecutor.
I’ve left out the best part: the Litchfield Merry-Go-Round. The entryway at the front door is so narrow that they can’t pass your detectables through the metal detector to the other side. You have to circle back to get them and pass through the detector again with them. Immediate déjà vu.
The clerk’s offices are at either side of the entryway behind Dutch doors which makes it possible to actually talk face-to-face in a civilized manner, not the glass tellers’ cages we’ve been blessed with elsewhere around the state.
They say that there’s a new courthouse coming. They’ve been saying that for years. It will be in nearby Torrington. The land has been designated. The plans have been drawn, they say. And there’s no money to pay for it. And with the current state of the State finances, it will be years before a new courthouse comes to pass.
You know, that’s not such a bad thing. The Litchfield Courthouse is the consummate people’s court. And if, unlike the Stamford Hilton on Hoyt Street, the New Britain McMansion on Franklin Square or the Middletown Marriott on Court Street, it’s old, cramped and creaky, it serves a purpose if it makes Carl Secola and the rest of us feel like old school lawyers instead of popinjays with briefcases, that’s ok. We can use the reminder.