Oh Brother, Where Am I?
Sometimes our practices threaten to become as routine and monotonous as life on a production line. We can use a little diversion to keep things interesting. That was the situation on a muggy, low -energy Wednesday in June in GA 23. You really had to be there to get the full picture but the story is worth telling.
First, the scene. Courtroom A, the “First Appearance Court”, is at the end of the Elm Street Courthouse opposite the main entry doors that face The Green. The long, elevated marble bench is to your right as you enter. Immediately below the bench and perpendicular to it are two desks, back to back, one each for the clerk and monitor who face each other. One edge of their work surface touches the bench and the other abuts a long wooden table that is parallel to the bench. The prosecutor’s podium sits on the end of the table to the judge’s right. When a case is called defense counsel stands at the table facing the judge, defendant to counsel’s right.
On this Wednesday, the relevant players in place, the business of the court can now begin. With one exception. Significantly, at least for this story, there is a worn aluminum metal handrail attached to the end of the bench to the judge’s left. It is waist-high and reaches six feet out into the courtroom. It is about three feet away from the monitor’s back and from the end of the long table opposite the prosecutor’s podium.
Before court opens a marshal directs pro se defendants who want to talk to a prosecutor to line up against the rail to wait until called. Sometimes the judge opens court before that happens. That’s what makes this story.
Imagine you’re a “first-timer”, unfamiliar with the courts. You drive in from Madison or Pine Orchard because you’ve been cited for allowing your dog to roam, playing your radio too loudly at Hammonasset or possessing illegal fireworks. You enter another world. You don’t have a lawyer; you just want to talk to the prosecutor and square things away. The marshal tells you to wait at the rail and while you’re there, Bingo! court opens.
That’s what happens this Wednesday. Three bewildered souls stand, trapped in silence at the rail, as the action swirls before them for nearly two hours. Embarrassed by their apparent positions of prominence, they find themselves on stage without direction or script. They try to comprehend the mini-dramas they seem to be a part of.
For us lawyers, watching them trying to figure out what’s happening is better than a Charlie Chaplin movie. One is a college kid-late teens, early twenties, neatly combed and wearing a tie. He’s closest to the bench. Next to him a tall blonde fellow, mid-forties, golf shirt and khakis, apparently taking a morning off from the yacht club. And best of all, next to him, hung over and barely awake, a bearded Charles Manson look-alike sporting a maroon t-shirt with “Atlantic City” spelled out in script. Clearly more familiar with the venue than his companions, his condition nevertheless leaves him no abler than they to comprehend the passing scene.
We watch their faces as they struggle to interpret the courtroom jargon—“Can the
mit order that he be placed in segregation, Your Honor?” “Thirty days suspended; six months CD” “We’re applying for AR. Can we have two weeks for notice, Judge?” “Rather than CSLP we’re asking for the DEP, Your Honor”
Their faces telegraph their thoughts. Kid College stands straight. His brow is knitted. He is mystified. He’s doing what he’s been told but he just can’t figure out what’s happening. This isn’t like “Law and Order” at all. Where’s the jury, anyhow? Why do I have to stand here when everyone else is sitting? Wow, am I going to end up in a yellow jumpsuit and handcuffs like that guy just because I played my radio too loud?
Mr. Yacht Club is more blasé. He shifts from one foot to another, looks at the ceiling and occasionally at his watch. He has better things to do. My, this place is filthy. Oh, there’s a tape recorder. I guess they’re recording everything? Will I get a chance to tell them they never gave me a phone call when they cited me for my dog? Why am I standing here in front of God and everybody? Are they doing this to embarrass me? Is this what they call justice?
The best, of course, is Manson. He staggers. He wobbles. He yawns. He leans on the rail with his elbows, scowling. I got better things to do than stand up here and listen to this s—t. Hey, wait. Did I remember to have breakfast today? Wow. They gave that dude six months for a breach of peace! Hey, don’t I know that guy from the old GA 8 in West Haven.
On and on it goes. Nonstop. Guilty pleas. Continuances. Bail motions. Bench conferences. All this and more while these three, feeling as conspicuous as polar bears in the latte line at Willoughby’s, wallow in confusion at the passing scene they have unintentionally become part of.
Eventually they are rescued at the recess by the marshal and directed to an accommodating prosecutor. But for a while they made our day. They were a Kafka parody, providing an enjoyable diversion to another day on the production line.