My first visit to a courthouse took place on a Monday, which is apparently the busiest day of the week. The first impression I had of the people was that they all seemed to have a purpose. There did not seem to be anyone like me; an observer trying to get a feel for the courthouse. It was a bit intimidating to go to court without a reason. I was a little concerned that someone would ask me where I belonged, or ask me to leave the courtroom where I was watching the proceedings. As it turns out, everyone is far too busy with their own concerns to worry about anyone else.
When I arrived at the courthouse, I had to walk several blocks; this was the closest place to park. I waited outside in line with at least a hundred people, most of whom had a jury notice in their hands. It took a while to get inside because of the metal detectors. I noticed that many people were able to cut to the front of the line. It seemed that they were court employees or lawyers. Once inside, I had to put my bag and keys in the tray before being admitted. A woman in the other line set off the detector, and the guard checked her over carefully.
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Clearly, security is very tight in the courthouse. I checked the schedule that was posted on the wall so I could figure out what courtroom to visit. I was early, so I had to wait outside in the hallway for a half hour before entering with a large group of people. The seats in the courtroom were almost completely filled; I only waited about ten minutes before the bailiff instructed us to remain quiet during the proceedings, to turn off our cell phones, and for the defendants to remain in the courtroom until they had been called.
I noticed a few men and women sitting in the front wearing suits and holding briefcases. The bailiff opened a door and several men and women dressed in jail jumpsuits sat down in the jury box. At this point, the bailiff told us to rise and announced the judge as the “honorable Judge Ronald Meeks”. He was accompanied by a woman with a stack of files. The bailiff introduced everyone; the woman was the file clerk. There was also a court reporter and two clerks. The first case was called. A young black male was led to the defense table from the jury box, and Judge Meeks instructed the prosecutor to begin.
He stated that the young man was being arraigned on charges of possession of narcotics with intent to sell. The intent to sell was implied because of the amount of drugs he possessed at the time of his arrest. The judge asked if the defendant had any priors, and was told that he had been arrested twice before on the same charges and convicted once. The defendant had just been released from the county jail three months earlier. At this point, the judge asked for a bail recommendation, and the prosecutor requested that it be set at $50,000.
The defense lawyer, an older black woman dressed in designer clothes, argued that he could not afford the bail because he didn’t have a job. She assured Meeks that he lived at home with his mother and that his mother would take responsibility to make sure he came to court for his trial. The judge told her that because of his prior conviction, the amount of bail would stand. Judge Meeks asked if there was anything else, and both lawyers stated that they were finished. At this point, the judge turned to the clerk and asked her to set a trial date.
She gave a date that was two months away, but the prosecutor said that he was unavailable. The date was finally set three months ahead. Once the case was dismissed, the prosecutor remained at the table and the defense lawyer and her client left the courtroom. It was at this point that I realized they were doing arraignments the entire day in this courtroom. One by one, the defendants would go up with their lawyers (or in some cases, they would meet a public defender) and hear the charges against them and the amount of bail to be set. There was no drama, and there were no arguments.
It was all very quiet and civilized. As I left the courtroom, I saw jury members going in and out of the jury room. Many of them were on cell phones, complaining about waiting to be released. The courthouse was very crowded that day, and there were many individual courtrooms with people waiting outside. I can understand now why the courts have such a long backlog of cases. There are far too many people seeking a judge’s attention, and too few employees to handle the masses. My final impression is that a courthouse is probably the best place to work because it seems that there is a job for everyone.
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