The Judge Who Didn’t

“Good morning!” the judge says, too cheerfully. Nobody replies.

“I’ll try that again… Good morning!”

Under the bailiff’s glare, the motley crew on the uncomfortable benches manages to mutter out a response. Nobody else looks nearly as excited to be there. In court, you’re either afraid of what’s coming, or you’re angry about what happened, but nobody’s there for a good time. Not even the guy wearing happily colored flannel pants covered in marijuana leaves.

“Well, I am having a good morning,” the judge says. “I had a good breakfast, I’ve got some coffee right here, and I’m going to get good work done today. And you’re all going to help me. The first thing you’re going to do is listen carefully while I explain some things to you. There’s always one or two people who don’t listen and those people make my day less good, so you don’t want to be them.” He pauses and looks around slowly.

“First thing is, we’re going to go in docket order, except not entirely. Because this county is short on funds, and one of the things they’ve done to make our lives harder is cut the number of Spanish-English translators I have at my disposal. We have nine courts in session here this morning and two translators. I said two. So they’re going to float from court to court, and when we get a chance with one, we’re gonna stop whatever we’re doing and move on to someone who doesn’t speak English. And there will be no complaining. Is that clear?”

Nobody replies. That’s good enough.

“Secondly… gah,” the judge exhales. “I hate this part. It doesn’t get any more reasonable no matter how many times I say it. Here’s the thing. You’re all here for criminal infractions, which is worse than, say, traffic court. You don’t get to opt out and pay for a class and make this go away. But you’re all here for minor criminal infractions. And that means a lot of you are going to want to plead nolo contendere. Did my colleagues here explain how that’s going to work before I arrived?”

A few heads nod. An even smaller few half-heartedly hold up their already-completed nolo paperwork.

“Good. So you know you’re going to stand before me and tell me you’re pleading nolo, and I’m going to probably accept your plea, because I don’t like to be mean to people unless they really deserve it. But then we aren’t done. After you plead, I’m going to have to sentence you, and what I need you to understand is that I do not control the sentences. For many of you, I’m going to sentence you to a fine. You’re going to have to walk into that room next door and in that room you’ll either work with Mrs. Smith, if you have a credit card or a checkbook, or Mr. Barton, if you need some help structuring a payment plan. But either way you are going to be mad at me, because you are going to think that the amount of money you are paying for absolutely nothing is disproportionate to the, as we said, minor criminal infraction you may or may not have committed.

“So here’s what I’m telling you: I agree with you. 100%. It’s absolutely ludicrous that I can’t adjust these fines to reflect your crimes. It’s institutionalized blackmail. And I don’t even know where the money goes, because it sure doesn’t go into Spanish language translators, you know what I mean? Or break room coffee!” The judge grins as if he finds himself wildly amusing and looks around in vain for someone else half as entertained.

“The thing is, I’ve tried. I have spoken against this and I’ve petitioned and I’ve campaigned and I just can’t fix it all by myself. But I am also not to blame for it. And I need you to understand that I feel for you, I do, but we’re not going to waste time complaining in this court on this day. Do we all understand this rule?”

Again silence is his only response.

“Okay, well, I hate Mondays too. So let’s get this one over with as fast as possible. Bailiff?”

For all this isn’t traffic court, the docket still seems full of traffic offenses, with only an occasional exception. “Minor criminal infraction” can mean a lot of things, but must still end up feeling fairly repetitive to the people here daily. Nonetheless the  court machinery moves smoothly through the cases at a steady, even pace. But the judge is careful to pause at the outset of each case to make eye contact with the defendant and to smile and welcome that person to his court. No kind of criminal infraction is going to feel like a fun morning out with friends, but this judge is doing his level best to help.

After about an hour, as predicted, a young woman in a blazer and long skirt enters the court with no warning whatsoever. The judge notices her right away, nods, and gestures toward a bench full of young men at the front of the court room. As he concludes his current case, she approaches the first young man, checks a list on her notepad, confers briefly with him. He nods. He has been fidgety in his seat, almost panicky, wiping his palms repeatedly on his jeans. Now he approaches the podium and nods wordlessly at the judge. He grips the podium as if holding on for dear life.

With assistance, the judge determines that the young man is Alex, and that Alex is here because he assaulted a police officer. He clarifies that at the time of his initial arrest Alex gave a statement and claimed that the officer had been harassing a friend. Alex tried to make the officer go away and pushed him. Nobody was hurt. The officer is not in the courtroom today. Alex does not have any prior criminal history.

Occasionally Alex nods to confirm his translator’s understanding of those events, but otherwise he does not speak. Finally, the translator puts down Alex’s file. “We would like to plead guilty, your honor,” she says.

The room falls completely silent. There’s something wrong here, but the audience does not understand what. Or perhaps some parts of the audience understand all too well.

After a moment, the judge leans forward. He makes direct eye contact with Alex and says, pointedly to him and not about  him: “Alex. I’m not going to let you plead guilty today.”

Alex’s body language immediately changes. Before he had steeled himself against a known enemy. Now he is truly wary. He does not understand.

“You don’t have a lawyer here with you. Have you had any legal counsel at all about this matter?”

Alex has not had any legal counsel.

“Why are you pleading guilty without a lawyer?”

Alex is pleading guilty because he did, in fact, push the officer. He does not lie when he does a thing.

The judge sighs and leans back. He steeples his hands under his chin. Then he shakes his head. “No, I’m sorry, Alex, but I will not accept your guilty plea. I can’t. There are things I can’t ask you today, not here. But I’m just concerned about what will happen if you plead guilty. I mean, let’s speak hypothetically here.”

The judge pauses for the translator. Then he carefully continues. “Hypothetically speaking, I am just considering what might happen if a young man such as yourself wanted to apply for citizenship, or even just a green card. That’s a thing we want you to do. Maybe you’re here working very hard, but you’re not here legally, and we want you to fix that.”

Now Alex’s hands’ death-grip is matched by the clench of his jaw. He is a frozen illustration of the split second decision between flight and fight.

“I’m not saying that’s the case here. I’m just wondering what would happen to that good young man’s chances of getting paperwork if he had a conviction for assaulting a police officer on his record. I’m just thinking maybe a young man who acted rashly and in a friend’s interest would like to explain that to a judge, with a lawyer. Maybe some witnesses.”

During the next translation, Alex shakes his head. He actually turns his back to the judge for a moment, looking over at the bench of other young men nearby. They look back at him helplessly. One of them shrugs, extends his hands palm-up.

Finally the judge addresses the translator. “Will you help him clean this up?” he asks. “I’d like to get him back on a docket in a couple of weeks, but I want him making sure he spends some time with the public defender first. Okay?”

The translator places her palm in the center of Alex’s back as she nods. “We’ll work it out, your honor,” she says, as she steers him toward the room where he will face the infamous Mrs. Smith and Mr. Barton.

It isn’t much, but as he walks out, the expression on Alex’s face is almost a smile.

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