Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Contempt of Courtroom


Is there anything in America at once so necessary and yet also so useless as a courtroom?

I spent Tuesday sitting in a courtroom. Wasting my day in a courtroom, actually. Without going into details which have nothing to do with this article, and which would violate the reasonable expectation a person has of privacy when they are just an ordinary citizen, my company had occasion to sue a customer who simply stopped paying, and then refused to even talk to us. The customer believed they were not required to pay their debt (incorrect), that they did not have to talk to us when we tried to contact them (correct), that they could refuse to accept the Certified letter (correct), even that they could ignore Sheriff’s deputies serving the Summons (wrong).

This wasn’t the first time in court with this customer. On an earlier occasion, the judge had suggested we arbitrate, and after a couple hours we had hammered out an agreement which seemed fair, giving us full payment eventually and the customer a lot more time. Unfortunately, when the time came for the first scheduled payment, the customer refused to make the payment, again refusing to talk about it with anybody, and the merry-go-round started up again. That was why I was there, sort of. Since I am not a lawyer, I was not privileged to sit at the counsel’s table before the judge, but I had been asked to be there, as a kind of moral support. That’s a long story itself, and not really relevant to the story here.

The real story begins with the fact that this should have been a quick and easy win for us. Although they had been properly served, the Defendant did not show, nor did their attorney. All we needed was to appear before the Judge who would almost certainly grant us a Summary Judgment; the same judge had presided over the first hearing was scheduled to hear this case, and was already none too happy that the Defendant had broken the agreement, and had further resisted being served. All we needed was to show up and show that the Defendant had ignored the Court Summons, and we’d be good to go.

In walked a visiting judge. Oops. A visiting judge changes everything, not the least because we had no way of knowing how he would handle the case. We soon found out and yet we did not know the worst of it.

The visiting judge did not feel that it was necessary to set up the docket in order. That is, he would decide at the end of one case which case he would hear next. As a result, everybody had to sit and wait. I’m sure the judge liked having a packed house, but this also caused problems. As each panel of jurors was seated, people had to move out of rows while the lawyers asked their questions and made their strikes. This might be the moment to mention that, like many other courtrooms, the air conditioning was less than completely effective, and the odor, whether body or that lingering aroma of old public building, gained strength and acridity. The charm of waiting for your case, which actually ended at the security desk where it is now necessary to remove all metal objects, your belt, shoes, and anything else that the machine might decide needs further inspection, had completely died five minutes into the Docket Call.

Because some of the cases involved police officers as witnesses, the Judge then decided that they should go first, in order to free up the officers. If he had said this plainly, we would at least have known we would not have seen our case tried that day, and simply returned at the end for the reset date. But he did not, and so we waited, along with everyone else. I consoled myself somewhat, by observing that since I did not have to wear makeup, I didn’t having to worry about sweat smearing my complexion or putty-colored droplets staining my suit. I was also relieved to confirm that my deodorant works under pressure. But a great chance to finally sort out the mess with our rebellious debtor has to wait for another day, and a whole day was wasted which could have been put to use in the office.

I had time to think about a variety of things while I waited for the slow wheels of Justice to do more than smell bad. This courtroom symbolized so much about the world and nation, it seemed. A number of talented people had no chance to do their work, held back through conditions they could not control, even as dozens of regular people suffered through the same delays. A number of possible solutions were available, but the people who could have put them to use had no desire to even consider them. And this condition is multiplied by the number of courtrooms across the nation, not to even consider the frivolous cases submitted and the absurd maneuvers used by lawyers who knew they could not win on the merits of their case, as well as judges and clerks who impair the court with personal attitudes and bias they carried in from home or prior arguments. Looking at recent rulings, it appears that even Supreme Court Justices are not immune to this prejudice and idiosyncratic. Going to court was never meant to be enjoyable, but the Constitution leads one to suspect the process was meant to be relatively smooth and even-handed; the process over the History of the United States shows that this ideal has always failed miserably in actual practice. Because of the heavy cost in time, work, and money to go to court, bullies of many colors have used the threat of suit to coerce submission from people and groups, and there are persons of great repute (Reverend Jackson, for one notable example) who have made a very comfortable living through the use of legal extortion to fund their lifestyles. The courtroom has become like a secret club, where the unitiated and common people are quickly marked as targets, and lose their money, liberties and rights to canny insiders well-versed in the certain tricks of documents and motions before the bar. This is why the homeowner loses to the developer, and the individual to the corporation; the larger predators have legal staffs prepared, even hungry for this arena, where the rights of ordinary people are not recognized in the practice of litigation. What the Constitution protects in theory, the Court eviscerates in practice. The vicious disinterment of long-held protections, is quickly and automatically followed by the devouring by all who choose their fight using weapons created by the rhetoric of dead languages, and with the absolute abandonment of any principled respect for the Law above appetite. Innocence is quickly raped and destroyed within the stone walls, and if Truth dares to follow in search of her sister, she soon meets the same fate. It is all too appropriate that judges wear black robes, archaic and arcane and unanswerable to people used to daylight. It speaks to the matter that Democrats see no need to change the system which allows for whim to interpret the course of our nation’s very identity and values, while most Republicans recoil at the abuse of power and the revisionist fantasies made fiat upon the land.

It is in that consideration, that I now turn to the fact that our founders gave a third of the power over Government to the courts. Never has the phrase ‘necessary evil’ so aptly applied to a group, nor has ever so small a number of men thought it meet to hold power so long as they please without consultation and moral balance. Anyone can sue an ordinary person for any reason, yet justice is not assured in any case. And yet government, which surely errs in occasion and instance, is inviolate in most cases from accountability, and when action is allowed, it is at such delay and cost that the individuals originally wronged have no hope of resolution in any foreseeable time frame. Where once it was considered meet to grant freedom up to the point where it infringed on another person’s freedom, we now see cities and states deciding acceptable conduct, even in private homes. It is generally illegal not to wear your seat belt, even though such a decision hurts no one else. In some cities, it is now illegal to smoke in your own business, even if the public has no access and it offends no one working there. It is now illegal in some cities for parents to teach their cultural values to their children, if those values are considered unacceptable by the City Council. You can be sued not only for things you might have done, but even now for things you never did, if the court agrees that you might be likely to do them in the future, or if your facility is used by someone who chooses to commit a crime. You can be punished for having a home in an area which the City would like to develop for greater tax revenue, even to the point of losing your home to be replaced by a private business. You can be held responsible for actions taken by people with whom you have never had any contact, if you appear to share similar genetic traits, and your children can be denied access to certain state facilities and schools, if they are not the right color of skin. All of these have been affirmed by court actions at many levels, and there is no process in the works to restrain the courts from these and further arrogance.

I certainly recognize the value and necessity of the court system. There must be recourse to wrong, however poorly the system works, and the very notion of tying judges directly to the political process, with regular replacement by whatever party is in power and no doubt introducing the ubiquitous PACs into things as well, makes my skin crawl. Yet for all the good which is done, it appalls me to see the evil so largely unrecognized, to say nothing of unaddressed. I ask again, therefore: Is there anything in America at once so necessary and yet also so useless as a courtroom?

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