What I Learned While Working In The Court System


I take some pride in the hodgepodge of things I’ve done to get by during the last six years. I’ve tutored French, worked at a bookstore, served as a barista and even mowed some lawns. Of course, some jobs impact you more than others. The gig that really defined my early twenties was working in my city’s justice system as a weekend courtroom clerk. This strange occupation meant that for three years my life was marked by an unusual dichotomy: during the week I concerned myself with courses, exams and socializing, while my weekends revolved around drug addicts, domestic violence and confiscated weapons.

Despite the early hours, I maintained a pretty busy social life and usually stayed out late. The regularity of my work schedule never impacted my resolve to party just as hard as everyone else in my social circle, maybe a bit harder. Every Friday and Saturday night I would do something stupid like stay up trying to make out with someone and every Saturday and Sunday morning I would hop on my bike, bleary-eyed and hung-over, dreading that day’s work and praying that the list of prisoners would be short. It never was.

One morning I was so hung-over that I blithely informed the judge of it in the hallway while he was heading to the courtroom. He actually seemed pleased. “Really? Great, we’ll make sure to get through everything today as fast as we can.” I was only slightly surprised. That was the thing with weekends. I learned very early on that the greatest priority of all in the eyes of each courtroom employee was to go home as early as possible.

During my first year there, I wasn’t on the same page as everybody else. I remember working on some bail papers for a domestic assault, the last matter of the day. The accused was Hispanic and spoke halting English. The justice was reading him his bail conditions, which included anger management counseling. The man didn’t understand what this meant. The court reporter turned to the judge, “I can’t understand any of this, and he doesn’t understand either. We don’t have time to call an interpreter, so remand him to Monday.” The judge agreed and we tore up the bail papers, quickly writing a remand warrant. Now he would spend another day in jail, maybe more, but we could go home. When I piped up that I thought we could have used simpler English for him, my partner looked embarrassed and the court reporter dismissed me as a “bleeding heart.”

I learned a lot from my time at the courthouse. I learned that crack makes you look ten years older, finding myself blinking in puzzlement as the accused recited their birth dates. I learned that it’s almost a death sentence to be held separate from other prisoners, as people assume you are either a snitch or a sex offender. I learned that if you punch a cop, they might break your ribs, leaving you to limp up and down the stairs between the cells and the box. The prisoner who taught me that refused any help as he hobbled one step at a time repeating, “I’m a grown man; I knew what I was doing. I don’t need nobody’s help.” I learned that prostitution helps a lot of people make ends meet.

I learned in particular that relationships make people dangerously obsessive, crazy and latently violent. Every day a large proportion of our matters were domestic physical and/or sexual assaults where one partner or the other was driven to violence by fear, jealousy, and a particular blinding rage that was often illustrated by the lawyer’s synopsis of the charges during the bail hearing. Though I heard many synopses of violent crime during those three years, from murder to aggravated assault, no violence had such single-minded focus as the kind evoked on the record in domestic cases. The high volume of domestic matters meant that we nearly always had lengthy bail hearings to deal with, and complicated bail conditions to record. This always conflicted with the desire of the court staff to leave early.

Nearly three years into the job, I remember dealing with a particularly violent prisoner coming in from the west end of town on domestic charges. It had been a long day. She’d apparently busted one of the transport van’s windows with her foot, and needed three cops to keep her restrained. Upon entering the courtroom she punched the glass and launched into a long, run-on monologue full of accusations against the court and everyone in it, barely stopping to draw breath. The other support staff and I sat in apprehension as she spat, kicked and fulminated, wondering what was going to happen. Was this going to be complex? After a minute, the judge ordered that we couldn’t proceed and remanded her to mental health court on Monday. My co-workers and I relaxed in relief. We were done, she would be remanded, and the day was finally over. As the courtroom cleared and we gathered our supplies, I looked over at my partner, shaking my head and grinning. “Man, that shit she was saying sounded like something out of Finnegan’s Wake.” He laughed. I looked up and noticed the woman’s family still sitting in the body of the court. Her father began to cry loudly, and it seemed like he was looking right at me.

I wasn’t sure whether he’d heard me or not, but I quit shortly after.

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