1.5 Esprit de Court

Book One / 5

The pressure that trial courts experience daily to push individuals through the justice system can maim a court’s confidence in its own work as each year the problems associated with that system fail to resolve despite constant effort. Yet the strain exerted toward compliance, and toward meeting the demands within a framework of due process and fair treatment, may knit staff relationships more closely by the bonds of sheer volume, shared diligence, and daily repetition.

In criminal trial courts the attorneys who appear each week — whether for trial, for morning motion hearings, or for sentencing calendars — are primarily public attorneys. They are the county’s prosecuting attorneys and staff attorneys from the public defender’s office. Many of these attorneys have worked in one of those capacities for all of their legal careers, and they rotate by assignment to appear before criminal trial judges regularly.

In addition to the hours spent together in open court, the prosecutors and public defenders interact daily behind the scenes as they conduct discovery, negotiate plea agreements, and appear for hearings in preparation for trial. Although adversarial in purpose, they maintain in theory the common goal of a full and fair trial for the defendant, free from surprises or gamesmanship. They are frequently highly committed to the work they do, for reasons that rise above a mere career calling. Sincere interests in the concepts of justice and human and civil rights may underlie their work, and large caseloads offer ample opportunities to pursue those interests in court.

Yet despite the esprit de corps that makes court staff feel at times like troops in the same trench, rules exist to govern interactions between the bench and the bar, and to discourage the type of informal communication that would create or appear to create a disproportionate and unfair influence on behalf of one party and at the expense of the other. These rules are nearly always respected. No attorney wants to develop an unprofessional reputation within the small circles of the courthouse, or place a client’s interests at risk through their own unprofessional conduct.

But the rules do allow opportunity for the occasional close exchange. Within hours of Wade being escorted out of our courtroom following his fingerpainting display, email between courthouse staff rapidly carried details of the event. Later that same day, a private attorney from the criminal defense bar appeared in our courtroom as we were recessed. We knew him well, having seen him in trial for many years and shared experiences of comparable drama.

He entered the courtroom that afternoon with his hands behind his back and a grin on his thin, deeply lined face. “I heard you needed some of this,” he asserted loudly, tossing an individually-wrapped roll of toilet paper toward the judge.

For the next fifteen minutes the two traded old war stories, tales that had often been told but were no less welcome for the wear.

1.6 Harsh Situations, Harsh Characters