Tuesday, September 6, 2011

I Was A Teenaged Courtroom Monitor

Back when I was in college, I spent my winter break as a courtroom monitor for the American Friends Service Committee. This was when I wanted to become a lawyer, before I realized I was too much of a Silent Bob type ever to banter with the best of them in a law school class like those dudes in Paper Chase. A guy I knew from the Debate Club (where my silence was most conspicuous) and I signed up to monitor courtrooms for the Quakers to make sure that no legal rights were being violated. This was not to say we would have recognized such violations if we saw them. The American Friends dude who handled us – a glib, bespectacled and scruffy little guy who reminded me of the seventies-era comedian Buck Henry, and who was clearly Jewish, not a Quaker – just told us to keep notes. He would review the notes later, he assured us, and he would know if anything went wrong.

So my buddy and I did our little tour of Greater Boston courtrooms over the next few weeks. He drove. I paid for lunch. We came from the same hometown. As a matter of fact, he was my sister’s arch enemy back in high school, due to his playfully sarcastic demeanor. I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed hanging out with my sister’s arch enemy.

I remember only four courtrooms. There was one in Somerville, just off McGrath Highway, which had a red brick fa├žade with plain white columns like a pretentious funeral home or one of those forbiddingly formal restaurants that do most of their business as function rooms for wedding receptions and whatnot. The likeness fit, as appearing in court seemed just about as momentous as getting married or dying. It was even a rite of passage for some of us. The judge there was some old Irish dude whose eyes seemed to twinkle as the bailiff went, “Oyez! Oyez!” Of the few cases on the docket that morning, more than half were no-shows.

Then there was the wood-paneled courtroom in Brookline, with its short-haired lady judge. The courtroom was nearly as well-accoutered as a law office, and the cases discussed therein were just about as dull. Civil stuff, mostly. Rich guys quibbling over easements and an angry divorcee who apparently wanted to divorce herself from her own divorce lawyer. You get the picture.

The courtrooms in Boston were much grittier and more indelible. The downtown Boston courtroom had the light-colored interior of a colonial church and its docket veritably twitched with an assortment of hookers and other losers. The judge was a youngish guy who resembled Kelsey Grammer, except with gold-framed glasses and without the tooty-fruity baritone. The most memorable case that day was a probable cause hearing for a murder trial. A black inner-city dude was accused of shooting some white guy when the two crossed paths in a Boston park. The black dude claimed self-defense, even though the white dude had not been armed. He claimed, in fact, that the white dude had attacked him with his bare hands, and the black dude had no choice but to shoot him. In retrospect, this was not so long past the Boston busing crisis when black people were persona non grata in certain parts of the city, so maybe the black dude’s case would've had some merit had the white dude not been just some guy in an overcoat on his way home from work.

The freakiest courtroom of all was the one in South Boston. This supposed palace of justice was a dimly lit, puke-green-painted attic on the top floor of a hundred-year-old building on Broadway, and the case du jour was another probable cause hearing. A dapper-looking dark-haired guy – as natty as a mid-century London spiv with his blond wife sitting next to him - had allegedly murdered his boyfriend, a transvestite with undescended testicles. I did not make that up. That detail actually was mentioned, although pursuant to what I do not know.

I was not impressed with the sausage machine of the legal process during those few dreary weeks. When it was not boring, it was depressing, and when it was not depressing, it was simply inaudible. The professionalism of the attorneys and the judges was a subtle and persistent thing, like a squirrel gnawing on an acorn. Being in a courtroom ultimately reminded me of being in a hospital. In both places there is always something dramatic happening for somebody, but watching that drama unfold was, at least for this disinterested observer, like watching a tree grow.

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