I have complained bitterly and often about the downright ridiculous manner in which our local courts are conducted.
In the tri-county area, judges have time-and-again thumbed their snooty noses at anyone trying to hear or understand what is going on in “open” court. They do this by turning arguments in each case into private little parties that happen just in front of the bench – attorneys, clients and judges whispering back and forth to one another like thieves divvying up stolen loot. You only get an invitation to the parties if you run afoul of the law. Those of us interested in the decisions made in court are excluded.
Often, courtrooms are noisy and boisterous because prosecutors and defense attorneys, not usually the general public, are constantly yelling out the names of their clients into the crowd or are brokering deals, none too quietly, in the area between where the public sits and the judge. There is little decorum.
To give our Whitley County judges their due credit, I will have to admit that these practices, at least the times I’ve been to court recently, are dead. Our two district judges, Fred White and Cathy Prewitt, have become more mindful of the fact that court isn’t really OPEN if no one can hear what is going on, so they’ve cleaned things up a bit. I know old habits die hard, so they should be commended for their efforts.
Laurel County courts, I can tell you, are a shameful, disgraceful mess.
Two weeks ago I was in Laurel District Court to cover a case for the News Journal. Judge John Knox Mills was presiding. Now Mills is someone I’ve always thought had pretty good judgment, and I like his calm demeanor and generally pleasant attitude. I did not at all appreciate what he allowed in court on this day, however.
I sat on the front row and craned my ear toward the direction of the bench and still could not hear a word that was being uttered. It is a mystery to me what the decisions were in each of these cases.
What I DID hear was the annoying and often intrusive sound of public defenders, prosecutors and private attorneys bustling about like they were on a playground at recess. Judge Mills made no effort to temper their noisy prattling and chatter. And the THREE bailiffs hanging around in the courtroom couldn’t be bothered to restore any sort of order either. They were too busy huddled up swapping fishing stories, I guess.
Ironically, an audience full of criminal miscreants, and me, who were waiting their turn in front of the judge, were well behaved and orderly.
This circus was interrupted by what one of the bailiffs considered the most egregious and horrible crime ever committed, judging by the swiftness and the certainty with which he sprang into action.
An old man’s cell phone started ringing. I could tell the guy was quite embarrassed at this and it was obvious he had simply forgotten to turn his phone off when he entered the courtroom. It was an honest mistake. He fumbled as fast as he could to silence the ringer. Red faced and ashamed, he apologized profusely to the bailiff who proved unmerciful. Determined to restore order, he strutted right past screaming attorneys, some of who were talking on THEIR OWN cell phones, and confiscated the phone from the man with pride and bravado, as though he had cured cancer or stopped global warming dead in its tracks with his own two hands.
I felt sorry for the old man. He didn’t deserve to be treated so roughly. That’s justice for you in Laurel County District Court, I suppose.
I asked one of the nearby attorney if there was any way I could get within earshot of the proceedings. He talked to the bailiff for me, and the answer was a flat NO. Nothing could be done to make things better and that was that.
I had a similar experience months ago in Laurel Circuit Court. Lots of whispering and unruliness and all around contempt for anyone in the audience there to hear the cases.
I encourage people to pop into a courtroom one day and stick around for a bit if you want a belly full of it yourself. Maybe if more citizens began demanding change it would happen. As it stands, though, just get accustomed to sneers of derision and dubious looks from people when you show up. It’s not likely some of these judges will clean up their act anytime soon.