Tuesday, March 11, 2008
COMMENTARY: FIRST-SESSION KIBITZING, AND WHY COURTS SHOULD BE LIKE THE RMV
Another installment in my quest to visit 100 Massachusetts courthouses before the year is out. "I hope you enjoyed your dinner last night," the judge says to a jury in Concord District Court. "Did you stay up to watch the Red Sox last night? It went 11 innings before they blew it." The jury sits in a single row of chairs framed by a thin wooden railing and waits for the trial to resume. This courtroom provides a terrific perch from which to observe a trial. It's got a layout with elements of theater-in-the-round. The attorneys do their work in a sunken circle so that observers look down on all the action. Waves of tall brick walls spiral throughout this building, tying together courtrooms and making the building a quaint place to be. The attorneys in this case are arguing an auto-insurance matter. The claimants want cash for their stolen vehicle; the insurance company is suggesting that something fishy is going on. "You can't get to the bottom of things unless people give you honest information," says the lawyer for the insurance company in his closing argument. "And they have not provided it." The lawyer for the claimants then has his turn. "My clients have blemishes, but we all have blemishes," says the attorney. "How many molehills does it take to make a mountain? The emperor has no clothes. ... Or does he have clothes?" I'm confused, but then again, I tuned in late. In Newton District Court, there is an intercom announcement to alert people to the fact that the first session is beginning "in three minutes." Only a few courts seem to use the intercom system, and I wonder why. (This seems to come under the "makes-too-much-sense" category.) Is everyone aware that the Registry of Motor Vehicles has an electronic update-board system to alert "customers" as to when they will be helped? Is everyone aware you can monitor the wait times on the Internet? I mean, how terrific is that? Do you think maybe the courts have a bit of catching up to do? For all the earnest work that goes on in courts, let's face it: We are a system of primitive note-passing and nodding and whispering and searching for people who may or may not be in the building. Any of this sound familiar? Is attorney Parker here? Does anyone know? Put it on for second call. You haven't signed a waiver of counsel? Do that, then wait on a bench over there and the District Attorney's Office will find you. Victor Sanchez? Victor Sanchez? Victor Sanchez? Cripes. The Newton court provides another comfortable place for court business. The dÃ©cor is colorful, with blue, brown and beige elements mixed with wood paneling in the main courtroom. In the row of seats in front of me, there are several seniors, and they are chatting in hushed tones. They seem to have no connection to any specific case and don't seem to be in a hurry to get anywhere. I mean, they're just sort of kibitzing. I start to wonder if they are simply spectators, fans of the court. There's a woman in custody who is here to answer charges of operating without a license and failure to wear a seatbelt. So, I'm umm wondering why she is in shackles. She appears behind the glass-windowed dock, looking weathered in something that appears to be a state-issued kimono kind of thing. It soon becomes clear. "Are you aware that the Taunton court is looking for you?" asks Judge Margaret A. Zaleski. "Yes," she says. "And the Fall River court?" the judge asks. "Yes," she says faintly. "How old are you?" asks the judge. I can't hear the answer, but man, she's young. "And you have three kids?" the judge laments. "I'm going to send you to Taunton to take care of that case," Zaleski says. The woman sinks in her seat and starts to cry. Later, I have the chance to sit down with Clerk-Magistrate Henry Shultz, who tells me that the Newton court is a "small but intellectual court." So, are those seniors sitting in the gallery really just there to watch all day? "Probably not," laughs Shultz. "But we do have our regulars here, a big senior-citizen population, retired people. We have to call for 'The Ride' a lot." The city's well-heeled population is reflected here in the court, says Shultz. "In Lowell, a small-claims dispute might be a dispute over a grocery bill," he explains. "In Newton, it's more likely a dispute over the custom-made drapes." Shultz has been at this for 37 years. "Every day is exciting," he says, his ear-to-ear smile appearing after every sentence. "I see the grandchildren of police officers I used to work with reporting for work. Sometimes I see the grandchildren of defendants as defendants." "Nothing is more important than the family," says Shultz, as if all of the court's business somehow comes down to that. "Nothing."