Peter Funt: Looking at the Law
In one courtroom were poorly prepared attorneys, shackled defendants and assembly-line justice. In another, things were all spit and polish: “yes, sir” and “thank you, ma’am.”
My son Danny and I spent the better part of a recent day observing our legal system from vantage points 3,000 miles apart. My conclusions were encouraging, while his were depressing.
As part of an assignment for a class at Georgetown University, Danny attended Superior Court for the District of Columbia. As a community volunteer, I watched high school students in California compete in the annual mock trial tournament.
By arguing a fictitious case in a real courtroom before an actual judge, the students learn a lot about the legal system, at least in a sanitized form. Youngsters develop character and poise, regardless of whether they pursue careers in law.
“Students are trained to exaggerate formality and attention to detail in how they speak and present themselves,” Danny recalls about his own mock trial experience. “That seemed far from the minds of attorneys in the D.C. Superior Court, who were often unpolished and appeared to work grudgingly.”
Here’s more of Danny’s report:
“After several hours at Superior Court, I felt dismay for those who are subjected to the system. Although Judiciary Square is beautiful, everything inside has an air of misery reminiscent of the bureaucratic dreariness found at a Department of Motor Vehicles building. The disproportionately high number of minorities was stark, and in that regard I was pleased that the presiding judge was a middle-aged black woman, sharp and attentive.
“The courtroom atmosphere was unceremonious. Most jarring was seeing defendants forced to wear orange jumpsuits with shackles on their wrists and ankles. The need for restraints was puzzling considering that the defendants had certainly been frisked and were accompanied by an armed bailiff.
“Sitting shackled was an older black man with an unkempt beard. His court-appointed attorney reviewed the man’s mental condition with the judge, including how he was ‘exhibiting odd behavior in the hallway.’ It seemed dehumanizing to discuss this man’s mental health almost as if he were not present.
“Next came a middle-aged woman, also in a jailhouse jumpsuit and shackles, a heroin-addicted single mother of two, who had been arrested for breaking a window. Her attorney explained that she left a rehab program because she had been sexually assaulted at a similar program a year ago, which records confirmed.
“The defendant explained that her boys have been staying with their troubled grandmother, while she spent the last 28 days in jail, she has difficulty acquiring the necessary medication, and she was scarred by the sexual assault experience. She was ordered to serve 60 days in jail with credit for time already served.
“You’re an easy target in jail,” the judge warned. “You’re attractive, and unless you put on 100 pounds you’re not going to be safe.”
Regardless of the accuracy of that statement, I am not sure if such threats are appropriate from a judge, especially when directed at someone who has already been a victim of sexual violence.
“The next case highlighted the incompetence of some attorneys. At one point the judge rolled her eyes and said, ‘Blah, blah, blah, can we get on to something relevant?’ Later she asked the prosecutor, ‘Are you pretending to not understand what I’m saying, or are you ignoring it?”
By comparison, judges in mock trial go to the other extreme with student attorneys, showering them with praise. Defendants are not forced to wear prison garb or chains. It’s all quite understandable, but is it realistic?
How do students—or any of us for that matter—form impressions of the legal system? Is it via firsthand observations such as those that left Danny so dismayed? Or, is it based upon often-glamorized dramas in movies and on TV?
Perhaps those who care about how our system functions should be required to spend a few hours in a real court. It would help to clarify what lawyers like to call, “the truth of the matter.”