By Shane Cashion
June's recent post about jury duty and the replies it received got me thinking about courthouses. For those who've never been, they're actually great places to people watch - way better than the mall or the zoo or the ballpark. At the courthouse, you can see the whole spectrum of human emotion. The only other place I've seen people so impassioned is the pawn shop. When suffering through bouts of insomnia I sometimes watch Pawn Stars and Hardcore Pawn on TV. The pawnshop-courthouse crowds seem to overlap. Actually, you could probably add casinos to the list, especially casinos found in your seedier cities. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that a lot of folks start their day at the courthouse, spend the afternoon at the pawnshop, and then hit the casino in the evening.
Wednesday is the best day to visit our courthouse. Thanks to the generosity of our legislature and county judges, straight couples can get hitched for free every Wednesday afternoon in a civil service. Not too long ago I had a hearing on a particularly hopeful Wednesday in front of a judge I like and admire. As I was handing him my motion I said, "Weddings on Wednesday; gotta love it, Your Honor!" He snickered and said, "Ha, the farm system for the family court." Judges can be jaded, much like cops. I have a close friend who's a cop. When I see a guy standing on a corner I think, "Good for him; must have decided to walk today." My friend thinks, "What's that boob getting ready to do?"
Once I saw a bride at Weddings on Wednesday with the face of the man she was marrying tattooed to the side of her neck. To me, that seemed like true love, even more so than the vows they exchanged. It looked really cool when they kissed, too, like a spirit was watching over them. Unfortunately not every Wedding on Wednesday is as blissful; the court sees its share of mistaken love too. Rumor has it that one doomed couple got married at one o'clock and then went back to see the same judge for a divorce at three o'clock. Apparently the bride and the best man allowed their kiss to linger too long.
Regardless of whether you visit your local courthouse on a wedding day or not, if you go, make sure you find the floor that handles associate circuit cases, domestic cases, or criminal cases. Those are the cases with the most action because the clients often have to appear with their lawyers, and sometimes, when things don't go as planned, the clients take their lawyers out to the hallway to "lecture" them. The reverse is also true. Either way, it's morbidly entertaining to watch. At some point you'll invariably hear: "I paid you to ...," or "You didn't pay me enough to ...."
Now if it's a trial you want to see, unless you've got days to kill, i.e. you're a juror, I'd recommend sitting in on a couple of small claims trials instead. They only last a few minutes and are kind of fun in a Pros vs. Joes sort of way. For the pro se litigant, it's an opportunity to try a case against a "professional" lawyer, which can be entertaining. For the lawyer, it's basically a no win proposition. The lawyer's expected to win, of course, but often times the pro se litigant has a better grasp of the law, and is far more vested in the outcome of the case. I have a buddy who is a partner at a large firm here in the Midwest, an Ivy Leaguer no less. For reasons too long and boring to share, he tries a fair amount of small claims cases for his largest client. At last count, his record against pro se litigants is four wins and nine losses. He maintains that the unpublished rule of small claims court is, "He who wears sweatpants wins," and because he wears a suit he's always the underdog.
I myself have only had to appear in small claims court once. I represented a guy I went to high school with in a dispute over a classic car he'd restored and sold to a lunatic. My pro se opponent brought all the parts he didn't think worked with him to court to show the judge, a sixty-something woman in designer heels. The entire plaintiff's table was covered in greasy parts. By the time we were finished the courtroom smelled like a gas station. I won on a wormy technicality. I thought for sure I'd get hit with a spark plug walking back to my office.
Like most courthouses, ours has seen a lot over the years, from near billion dollar verdicts, to fights, to even a shooting. It's not a place I'd recommend visiting often, particularly as a party, but if you're not a party and you're tired of the same stilted conversation outside your favorite Starbucks and you don't have a beach or a mountain to gaze longingly at, give it a try. It's definitely something different, and if you leave your pocketknife, belt and steel-toed brogans at home you won't have to wait to get in.