Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Full Court Press

Yesterday I accompanied half of our senior class on an all-day field trip to downtown Superior Court. As far as field trips and supervision go, escorting 12th graders to court is about as good as it gets: there are metal detectors, armed guards, and a high probability everyone's going to behave.

I was excited about the opportunity, as my experiences in court have been limited. I appeared once before a judge as a teacher in Washington D.C. in order to be granted permission to take one of my middle school students--a foster child--across the country to spend part of the summer with my family.

My first jury duty experience allowed me to read the entire Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, as I waited all day in the lounge. The next time, I was selected for a jury panel but the defendant failed to appear after lunch and we were all excused.

I have been served personally with subpoenas twice at school. The first time, I was the wrong lady with the right name. The second time, I wormed my way out of testifying by convincing the lawyer I wouldn't help his client.

Last year the principal and I were summoned to attest to the veracity of a student's school records only to be told upon arrival at the court that we weren't needed. I remember my annoyance at the hassle of long lines and bureaucracy but also being humbled by the slice of humanity passing through the building's doors at opening time. I recall being struck by the obvious contrast between the demeanor and dress of the officials of the court (lawyers, judges, clerks) and my peers dealing with the legal system.

Our yellow school buses drove past the family court building this morning and I thought of the students in the seats behind me whose parents are divorced. Court, I think, is kind of like a strip joint: I'm fascinated, but don't want to spend a lot of time there.

Still, if there's an organized tour, well then, okay...I'm in. And our students were taking part in Justice 101, a program for graduating seniors that combined time for witnessing real-life trials in action with lectures from a judge on Drunk Driving, Non-Consensual Sex, Getting Your Ass Kicked, and Beating Up Women. Ample time, of course, was allotted for Waiting Around and A Long Lunch, which are two staples of court, as I've come to recognize. It's safe to say I spent my day alternately awed and outraged.

Our students were told tales and shown videos of poor decision making that resulted in DUI, Gross Bodily Injury, Mayhem, Permanent Brain Damage, and Death. Also Arrest and Time in Prison. And then we were set free to walk into courtrooms at will and watch our justice system at work.

There were four murder trials in progress, so many of us headed off to catch a glimpse. Of course, our right to a public trial, part of the 6th Amendment, means folks can walk into (most) courtrooms and observe what's happening. That doesn't mean, however, that it is comfortable to do so. These are often life and death matters, and barging in on discussions concerning the fate of a fellow citizen felt a little like interrupting someone's doctor's appointment.

On TV and in movies, murder trials appear to have full galleries of spectators. I was surprised to find only two audience members observing the case I peeked in on. Someone lost his life, I thought, and another young man's life is hanging in the balance, and there are only two people here for closing arguments. On the other hand, I had to consider the extent to which family members of victims and accused can put their own lives on hold to be present in court every day. There are long hallways of courtroom after courtroom and serious sagas playing out within, day after day. Sobering.

The verdict was yum on the Mexican fare in the Food Court, where I received some of the best advice of the day. "Hey lady," offered a man in the long line snaking behind my chair, over which I'd slung my purse, "you should put that bag in your lap."

As we left the court building at the end of the day, a fellow chaperone overheard one guard note to another, "There go our future clients..." Hey! I want to protest, They're (mostly) innocent!

In my position of authority as Vice Principal, I've studied the contrast between my role and the roles of other authority figures, particularly judges and cops. School admistrators are tasked with serving synonymously as students' prosecutor, defense attorney, judge, and jury. It sounds like a burden, but I think it's a luxury to view a situation from all sides and adopt an appropriate role in support of a student.

I left court not envying the judges who make life-changing determinations for the folks in their care, but have only fleeting relationships with them: a heavy responsibility and without the crystal ball to reassure them that their verdicts turn some lives around. They have to take for granted, I imagine, that fair, consistent, and compassionate carriage of justice does indeed make the world a better place.

As for my closing arguments: I think the best world is the one outside court.

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