Prologue: Fecal Finger-Painting
Book One / 1
King County Superior Court, in Seattle, Washington, is the twelfth largest trial court in the country. As bailiff to one of the court’s fifty-two elected judges, I work with a courtroom staff of three other employees — a court reporter, the courtroom clerk, and the judge. Each day we are either in trial on a criminal case, hearing post-trial criminal motions or pretrial civil motions, and presiding over a weekly calendar of sentencing hearings.
As the judge’s bailiff my job is to open and close the courtroom each day and manage all matters as required by law. I arrange for the appearance of everyone needed in court, ensure that each motion brought before the court is heard, that the judge is fully informed, and that all of his rulings, decisions, and orders enter the record.
I don’t carry a gun or provide courtroom security, although I coordinate with both the sheriff’s deputies and the officers from the county jail. I hold a law degree from a small public university, and with the judge each day I make decisions that will either create or close options available to individuals for the rest of their lives.
Despite popular images of bailiffs as courtroom security guards, or personal guards to the judge, the bailiffs of our courthouse are the judges’ law clerks, judicial assistants, and trial court administrators. In 1922 a state Supreme Court decision noted the unique role of the Superior Court bailiffs as an “essential part of the administration of justice.”
Each bailiff, by statute, is appointed to the position by a judge who has been elected by the citizens of his county. That appointment, the high court noted, makes the bailiff’s duties wholly independent from any government agency’s oversight. “The judges hire and discharge them,” the Supreme Court wrote, “they direct them in the performance of their duties; no other power or official has any other authority or control over them whatever.”
More recently, in 1997, the state’s Supreme Court referred to the bailiff as the “alter-ego” of the judge, a status, the court observed, that binds the bailiff by the same constraints that bind the judge himself. Many of those constraints are found in the rules that govern judicial officers and other officers of the court, but additional constraints exist as well, and bind just as tightly. They are the unspoken and unpublished constraints in service to both the reality and the perception of fairness; the quiet constraints within each bailiff’s conscience that guide his interactions with every individual in need of the court’s services.
The bailiff, as the state’s highest court noted, is “the judge’s assistant and liaison,” and it is that role as liaison – between the judge and the jury, and between the judge and the public – that demands the greatest discretion of a bailiff.
As the judge’s liaison a bailiff exercises constant diplomacy to reflect an image of the court as a respected, independent branch of government, deserving of the power it may be required to wield. At a time when many perceive a crisis of faith in local, state, and national governments, fostering that faith helps ensure the ability of trial courts to maintain the public’s confidence in the rule of law.
Much of what happens in a trial court takes place either outside the presence of the jurors or within the judge’s chambers. The anguished misconduct of defendants, the impassioned legal arguments of their attorneys and those of the prosecutors, the deliberation and decisions of the judge, the discussions between judges when court is in recess, the broad politics of administration and the small conversations at the end of each day — all these are monitored, managed, and given momentum by the bailiff. A bailiff must operate the mechanics of an open court while balancing the needs both of the parties for a fair trial, and of the public for participation and witness.
Whether working at our desks within the lower bench areas of the courtrooms — just below the judge — or inside our offices within the judges’ chambers, we are the gateway, or sentry, between the public and the private domains of the court.
In this sense bailiffs resemble the ancient statues of Janus, the Roman god of borders, bridges, and beginnings. Our dual aspects gaze both backward into the rooms behind the courts and forward into the courts themselves. We are the bridges between the public and the private, working the borders between the bustling courtrooms on one side of the bench, and the quiet respite behind them.
From inside my office I hear the circular spiral of an ambulance siren grow louder outside. It stops on the street below me, in front of a building across from the courthouse.
That building houses the downtown area’s emergency services center for the city’s homeless and, increasingly, mentally ill. It is also a residential apartment building for many of the center’s clients. Its residents stand outside or sit on the sidewalk throughout the day, individually and in groups. The punch of ammonia from the urine drying on the building’s exterior walls assaults pedestrians as they maneuver through the crowds on the block, past the yellowed cement and the pigeons pecking in courtship or competition.
When I first began working at the courthouse I felt a dissonance each day as I walked from my bus stop in front of the emergency services center to the courthouse door across the street. The differences that I initially perceived — between the services each building provided and between the populations they served — seemed profound, and the juxtaposition of the buildings themselves struck me as ironic. The used condoms smeared on the sidewalks and the busted hypodermic needles mere steps from the marble wainscoting of the courthouse halls suggested disrespect.
Today my transition between the two buildings is seamless. They appear to me now as the frantic arms of a single emergency medic, opening wide at the street level to accept the wounded and offer what is frequently the last word at the last minute. We are the twin warehouses of last refuge, I imagine. We are the places to where, at the end of both short and long lives, so many people arrive who first got hurt and then got angry, and who finally lost their connection to self-control. The services center attempts to provide connection; the courthouse is required to provide control.
Often, although an individual may be fortunate enough to avoid the homeless shelters or the streets, he will eventually make his way to our courtroom. Once he is there, we will be called upon to provide a forum for justice, and another criminal defendant will be processed away from the community he harmed, from the community in which he, without doubt, felt himself harmed.
This is now the irony and the dissonance I feel each day, the pain of holding both realities at once and fumbling with their meaningfulness. I stand in the courtroom with the judge and the jury, with the defendant and the attorneys, and I balance the certainty of both truths: the criminal defendant is indeed a criminal, often guilty in fact of extreme violence, yet he is also an individual hurt and harmed in some manner.
Frequently he will be convicted for the former, but only convinced of the latter. Throughout his trial and sentencing he will maintain a running narrative in his head that justifies his actions and illustrates to himself the injustice he receives. At times his silent narrative becomes vocal, directed accusingly toward those who accuse him, or he takes other actions to accent his outrage, and another courthouse legend is born.
In this way, in my experience, the trial court is a theater both of comedy and of tragedy, but above all it is a theater of war, and like all wars, the generals may not be found where the bullets — or the feces — fly.