Growing up in the early days of television, when “Perry Mason” was king, I became addicted to courtroom activity.
For those under 50, let me explain that Perry Mason, played by Raymond Burr, was a weekly hour-long television serial in which Mason, a defense attorney, never lost a case. So convincing, so theatrical were his closing arguments that often someone in the audience would shout, “I can’t take it anymore. I did it. I killed him and his body’s decomposing in my locker.”
Attending real trials in the Fourth Judicial District, which includes Las Vegas, I never regretted the time I spent there. It’s educational, and I felt good years later, when former Judge Jay Harris complimented my journalism class, in court, for showing up to see how the judicial process works.
One of my beats years earlier, as a reporter in Illinois, was to cover the courthouse for a daily newspaper. Though trials are informative, too often they’re long, drawn-out and incomprehensible. Too often, the jurists, who by law had to be at least 90 years old, spoke in arcane language, mumbled secret instructions to jurors and attorneys and often appeared just one quo warranto and half a mandamus away from declaring a mistrial.
I emphasize the drawn-out nature of the proceedings, in which attorneys, during jury selection, continually asked all prospective jurors the same questions to determine their suitability to sit in the box. For the most part, trials were week-long affairs, a far cry from TV fare in which Mason would tie up the loose ends in less than an hour and still have time to discuss the denouement with his able assistant, Paul Drake.
Once, in the heat of a summation, one of the state’s attorneys in Kane County, Ill., made a dramatic gesture that separated his prosthetic hand from his body; it landed on the lap of a woman juror who instinctively shrieked and shoved it aside as if it were a mouse.
Now this isn’t being written to ridicule the attorney who’d lost his hand years early in an accident. However, the unexpectedness of the incident cracked up the judge, who probably wasn’t aware that it was a hand that had flown into the jury box.
The prosecutor’s adversary called the sleight-of-hand “a tawdry trick designed to gain sympathy.”
Obviously, decorum had gone out the window that afternoon, and after apologies and threats to clear the courtroom, order got restored. Sort of.
At this moment, I’m watching an episode of “Judge Alex,” an interesting hour of entertainment, in which Alex allows participants to fight it out before slamming drown his gavel.
Now if this is intended as an introduction to the judicial system, something’s gone awry. It probably started with a man named Judge Wapner, and continued with personas such as Judge Judy and Judge Mathis (really). They’re real judges but with a twist of show biz. The arrangement is that the TV network pays whatever expenses are being sued for, on the agreement that the parties abide by the decision.
I’m watching two sisters feuding over a case in which one trashed the other’s apartment during a wild party.
“Wait, wait a minute, Judge, you didn’t give me a chance to talk,” the plaintiff just uttered.
“You wait. I’m talking, okay?” responds the judged.
Then the sister chimes in, threatening to “teach her what for.”
“Bang!” goes the gavel. But why did it take so long? Just like President Bush — after five-and-a-half years — realizing there’s a problem on the border. But that’s a subject for another column.
Aside from entertainment, is this the proper conduct of courtrooms, in which the litigants come close to emulating those who appear on the “Jerry Springer” show? Some confrontations even resemble the free-for-allness that we witness on a typical “O’Reilly Factor” interview on Fox News.
Clearing the courtroom because of disruptions happens only in cases such as the notorious Charles Manson trial of the early ‘60s.
And how do trials at the local level get handled? A judge from another jurisdiction filling in not long ago threatened to clear the room “if there’s a repeat of the laughter I just heard.”
As humans, don’t we all realize that laughter is often unavoidable — and even therapeutic — without necessarily turning a trial into a circus?
The lesser-known, “other” Judge Mathis — Eugenio — emphasizes that the “judge” programs on TV need to be considered mainly for the entertainment value they provide. “Those programs are far removed from reality. Our hearings are much more structured, and there’s not as much interaction between the judge and the parties,” Mathis said.
Then does that mean that in Las Vegas there’s no joke-cracking, face-contorting bailiff who rolls his eyes when the defendant says something inane? Does that eliminate the TV judge’s assistant who interviews both parties afterwards in the hallway to ask their opinion of the verdict?
Life doesn’t really imitate art. During “Judge Alex,” the audience broke out in applause twice, over Solomon-like pronouncements the judge made. In the program that followed, “Judge Judy,” she saved her best one-liners for just before the commercial. Remember, she’s the one who inspired Homer Simpson to ask, “Who appointed you Judge Judy and executioner?”
Our own Judge Mathis acknowledges a trial can be, well, a trial, and emotions such as anger, humor and sorrow have a way of manifesting themselves. “On occasion there are outbursts, such as crying or clapping,” Mathis said, “and the applause usually comes after the verdict is announced.”
And as for clearing the courtroom, Mathis would “not do it unless it was for a very extraordinary circumstance. Our proceedings are a lot more solemn than what you see on TV,” he said.
Newly appointed District Judge Abigail Aragon said she has never watched programs like “Judge Judy,” and as for clearing the courtroom, she said, there’s no need “provided we have the optimum presence, control of the courtroom and physical surroundings.”
Rather than the near-fisticuffs one watches on the tube, a good way to spend the day may be to attend an occasional trial in this area.
Sure, there are lapses and times when the speeches seem interminable, but they’re also informative. And with Mathis, at lest, we have a judge who realizes that people have and display emotions. So the odds are the courtroom won’t be cleared.
But remember that there are no commercial breaks in this courtroom.