I appeared at traffic court for a friend who was away on his honeymoon. Metropolitan Courthouse Division 61 before Commissioner Patrick Larkin. I’ve seen efficient judges at work, and I strive to deliver efficient justice when I serve from time-to-time as a temporary judge. But what I saw today left me aghast.
Some bench officers – judges, commissioners, temporary judges – try to deal with overcrowded courtroom calendars by lining up traffic ticket defendants to process them more quickly, arraigning (not a spelling error) them partly as a group and partly as individuals. Until today, the judges I saw still observed what I consider to be due process basics. I got just the opposite impression today in Commissioner Larkin’s courtroom. The commissioner seemed hellbent on processing meat instead of meting out due process.
First, the three lawyers who appeared for their clients (including yours truly) barely had time to breath in, much less say anything and breath out. When the commissioner called my client’s case, the prior lawyer was still asking for clarification on an issue. That didn’t appear to concern Commissioner Larkin who just steamrolled right over him to my case. I stated my appearance, waived reading of the complaint and a statement of rights and entered a not guilty plea to set the case for trial. The commissioner then immediately enunciated what I thought was an indicated sentence (what the court would accept as a sentence to resolve the case so that I could relay this information to my client and possibly settle rendering a trial unnecessary). The court spoke so quickly I had no choice but to request clarification on the indicated sentence; to this the court impatiently said words to the effect, “that’s the sentence, not the indicated sentence.” I pointed out that I entered a “not guilty” plea (which means the case must be set for trial), but the court seemed narrowly focused on the word “guilty” despite its being preceded by the word “not.” Hmmm. He finally got it and set a trial date and that was it – no time for any clarification on what he would do for a sentence, or to make any further record.
I’m used to the way things are done in California, and this felt East Coast “icky” to me; stopwatch justice leaves me feeling very uncomfortable. No problem for “the commish,” apparently, as he was off to the next phase in delivering his brand of justice. Enlisting the aid of his growling bailiffs, who were no doubt used to the drill by now (and who didn’t seem to care much one way or the other), he lined up the first batch of twenty or so bewildered defendants and boom, boom, boom, like bolts to the head of cattle, he started extracting guilty pleas. Stunning. Most of the people at court were working class minorities who quickly understood from the first example or two that guilty pleas would get them out of court and back to work quickly, with “deals” they could live with, so they capitulated. Culpable’. Culpable’. Culpable’. So what if they were clueless at what was being said. Yeah, the interpreter was interpreting, but it’s the process that fell short. In 14 years, I’ve appeared at nearly every courthouse in the greater Los Angeles area and after some 2,500 court appearances can’t remember a worse example of procedural due process. Further, I can’t believe that this kind of courtroom circus would EVER be tolerated in courts serving Santa Monica or Beverly Hills, but hey – those people have money, education and they VOTE. The mostly poor, uneducated minority defendants at Metro – probably half of them are illegal aliens – what political power could they possibly exert?
Some might think Commissioner Larkin is justified because the ends justify the means – his method processes a large number of traffic defendants daily, clears the courtroom, gets people back to work and rewards them for their guilty pleas by reducing fines. Win-win, right? But is that what justice boils down to? Expediency? How many people a bench officer can process per hour? No. Due process – procedural and substantive – is inextricably linked to the delivery of justice. Yes, efficiency is important, but it’s still called the “justice system.” The commissioner’s method did not appear constitutionally sound to me; instead, I saw it as de facto disenfranchisement of the vulnerable and a picture of how fragile the delivery of justice can be – even at traffic court.
So, what did I do about it? I complained a little to courtroom staff, then I left. And, oh yeah, I wrote this blawg entry to let you know what happened.