Editor’s note: The VCReporter is introducing a new column — Vicarious View. Our writers will go out and experience what it is like to be fully immersed in a certain activity — a day in court, a day at the morgue, etc. If you enjoy this column, please send your suggestions to email@example.com and see a day in print in an upcoming issue.
It’s the fast-food version of a regular court trial. There’s no jury and no judge. Lawyers are optional. On average, each case gets three to five minutes of the judge’s or commissioner’s time before a decision is made and the file is slapped onto the court clerk’s desk. Next!
Two volunteer mediators give an opening talk, encouraging people to follow them into the hallway and negotiate a settlement, confidentially and for free. Ordinarily, their services cost between $250 and $500 per hour, but to many, it sounds like watered-down justice. When a large, rather sweaty man named Rodriguez asked an elderly British woman to do mediation a couple of weeks ago, she vehemently refused. With a shrug, he turned to the person to his right and whispered, “Wow! She’s a tough little old bitch.”
She was not the only one unimpressed by the mediators, but they concluded their pitch with an ominous warning. “With us, every case ends in a win-win situation. If your case goes to the commissioner, there can only be one winner and one loser.”
At exactly 8:15 a.m., casualties of the poor economy flooded into the courtroom: workers collecting from employers, aggressive credit-card company reps, landlords going after back rent, etc. A young, naive couple was suing a scruffy, greasy-haired former landlord with an unpronounceable name over mysterious extra fees. Two perky Asian women in miniskirts chirped about unpaid wages and left a trail of perfume in their wake. A man dressed in head-to-toe denim with a massive silver belt buckle was duped by a work-from-home scam, and there was a preponderance of old women with British accents doing crosswords while they waited.
Some elements are like what you’ve seen on TV. Everyone raises the right hand and swears to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help them God. A bailiff (deputy’s sheriff) delivers documents from the plaintiffs to the defendants to the commissioner/judge and back again, maintaining a gap between the bench and the audience section in case people get hostile when things aren’t going their way.
One woman shuffled her papers in frustration and scanned the room for her opponent. “I don’t understand how this works,” she said. She soon learned that the defendant in her case couldn’t appear because he had died several days earlier. A few people didn’t show because they filed bankruptcy. An arrest warrant was issued to have one absentee hauled in by police, and Roberto Jewelers lost three cases in a row because no one was there to represent them.
A disheveled man representing a classic rock festival swayed back and forth compulsively, insisting that he couldn’t be sued because his festival wasn’t a real company. Two women wandered in late, and argued with the bailiff when they were told that they’d have to re-file their lawsuit. A middle-aged Greek woman listened as the commissioner told her that she was responsible for damage to the fire truck that hit her car as she was swerving across freeway lanes, explaining in great detail. Several people yawned. She held back tears after receiving a fine. Another file closed. Case done.
The court circus ended abruptly. Cell phones were whipped out as everyone hurried back into the halls, disappearing as quickly as they arrived. Frustrated conversations could be overheard: “How will we come up with the money?” or “Will we be able to enforce this?” Some of them moved into long lines for the processing counter, hoping that they would make it in time, since the court has cut its office hours to deal with the state budget crisis.
Ironically, the people who seemed happiest about the outcome of their cases fell into one of two categories: either they had chosen to use a mediator, or they had gotten lucky because their opponents failed to appear. Whether others choose to make it a circus or not, going to court doesn’t need to be intimidating. Winning is about remembering three things: show up, know your case and bring your book of crossword puzzles.