Fault Lines
24 April 2017

Night Court, The Real One

Feb. 25, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Back in the late 80s, a legal show took America by storm.  Admittedly it was a bit light on the law, but it was heavy on humor and canned laughter.  Its zany characters pulled back the curtain to show us that a judge could mix cut-rate magic tricks with bail determinations, a 9-foot-tall, bald monster-bailiff could have a heart of gold and a sleazy-as-they come prosecutor could hit on prostitute defendants without missing a beat (or getting disbarred).  This show was Night Court, and it was a mainstay in the Womble household during my formative years.

Fast forward 25 years and I found myself playing the role of the underappreciated Markie Post public defender in my own real-life night court. For 8 years, I was a public defender in Brooklyn, New York.  Along with the huge caseload, constantly ringing phone and barely adequate pay came one more responsibility: night arraignments.

Without really trying, NBC did not miss the mark by as much as you may think. Now, I may never have propositioned a scantily-clad client while I was on the record (or otherwise), but I can certainly shed some light on the differences between TV’s Night Court and real night court.

The tension that sits in a courtroom where person after person is told whether they are going home or going to jail is palpable. Mix that environment with a shift that sometimes extends past one in the morning, and even real people can get pretty zany.

Night arraignments have a structure and process that is eerily similar to its more standard daytime version. There is a judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, court officers, clerks, stenographer and of course, the stars of the show, the defendants.  Beyond the cast and crew, though, night court is the Clockwork Orange to the day’s Law & Order.

Before delving into the weirdness that is night court, it is important to note the different effects that this grueling shift can have on an attorney. Monday through Friday, a public defender works a 9 to 5 (at least), running around to any number of different courtrooms in possibly different courthouses. Any time in the office is spent checking messages, returning calls, answering calls and if there are a few spare minutes left over, working on the stack of clients and cases covering the desk.

At 5 p.m., the public defender grabs the stack of notices of appearance from the printer and heads over to arraignments for another 8 hours of work. This is only the halfway point of a 16-hour workday.

Each particular day has its own brand of suck. Night court on a Monday means a week of exhaustion.  Tuesday and Wednesday are not as bad, but only in that the point of exhaustion is slightly delayed.  Thursday night sucks the least, since all you have to do is make it through Friday and you are home free.

Friday is easily the worst weekday shift. Anyone who has worked a 9 to 5 knows that once that whistle blows, Friday night is sacred.  Take that away and there is a dark cloud of dread hanging over the whole workweek.

A Saturday or Sunday shift is somehow even worse. The normal two day reprieve that allows the public defender to recharge before diving back into the insanity is erased.  The following Friday night seems a thousand miles away and the week before and after the ruined weekend are compromised.

The silver lining to night court (and it is barely there) is that the day after a night court shift, public defenders are sleep deprived, cranky and their baseline attitude of resistance turns into full-blown, “don’t fuck with me.” This can make for interesting, and sometimes surprisingly productive, discussions with the government and judges.

Next, there is the attire, more colloquially known as the “arraignment suit.” Every public defender has one or two, and while, from a distance they might look like serviceable attire, up close, it is a threadbare patchwork of holes and frays more appropriately adorning a hobo.  The reason for the suit is utility.  A busy arraignment shift can have a defender moving around that courthouse more than some lawyers do in an entire month.  You don’t want to risk wear and tear to your best sale-rack Macy’s suit, so you bring in the trustworthy old arraignment gear.

Now, the power brokers. Even on a good night with a reasonable prosecutor and a judge that only sets bail when warranted, night court is still a slog.  But turn one or both of those into people who don’t give a damn about fairness or the presumption of innocence, and it can turn into out-and-out warfare.  This is not to say that these players do not have a similar effect on a 9 to 5 arraignment shift.  But at night, the sound is turned up and everyone’s edges are a little harder.

But just as tensions hit a boiling point, the halftime whistle blows. The bridge officer announces, “AR1 will now be taking its scheduled dinner break; please exit the courtroom, court will resume at 10 p.m.”  The 9 p.m. dinner break.  For people who normally eat dinner around 6 or 7, tough.  But, honestly, the night court public defender is too busy to even notice.

The normal ritual was that the group of public defenders would decide on a restaurant within a few blocks and book it there. The waiter would be notified that we needed our meals quick.  Not because we were important; in fact, quite the opposite.  We were the least important, and therefore could not afford to be late.

Then, for the next forty or so minutes, everyone would unload the trials and tribulations from the previous four hours over sushi, burgers, diner food, or if there was enough time and a feeling of adventure, Chinese food across the river in Chinatown.

Pay the check four ways and head back to court for the strangest part of the evening. Taking a human being and having them do intensely emotional work from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m., and then allowing them to decompress for an hour by stuffing themselves with a quick and late dinner, does something to the human body, especially the brain.  Once court resumes at 10 p.m., your mind no longer works like it should.  You are not the razor sharp advocate you were prior to 9.  Your bail applications have lost a great deal of shine and almost all of their direction.

This was only a true problem for the public defender. Even if the prosecutor lost some pizzazz, it mattered not.  Pizzazz is unnecessary when reading allegations from someone else’s write-up.  The judge’s role is mainly passive, and when called upon to say something, it is either brief or scripted.  For the public defender, though, their bread and butter is performance and passion.  When the government states in a monotone voice that they got their man, you have to paint a damn vivid picture to make the judge question whether they actually did.

Oddly enough, the judges are not immune to the post-dinner break affect either. Perhaps with the prospect of a comfy bed inching closer and closer, a forgiving quality seeps in and defendants who may not have been released before dinner get the benefit of the doubt and get to go home to their own bed as well.  It’s either that or a full tummy.

Once that last case is done, the announcement goes out that court is done. At one o’clock.  In the morning.  There are generally a handful of very unfortunate family members who are told that they will have to come back in the morning, as their loved ones didn’t make the deadline.  But for the people who work the shift, it is a dash for the exits.  No one dawdles. They go to their car, bike, bus or train and get home as quickly as they can.

Last is the front door of your home. You walk in, take off that ridiculous suit and lie down.  Then your eyes pop open because you are way too wired to actually sleep for at least another hour.  So you get up, head over to the liquor cabinet, pour yourself the nightest of nightcaps, and drink to the real night court.

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