Clarence Smedley, a local busybody, had occasion recently to sit in a district court session at the 1920’s styled Van Buren County Courthouse set in the middle of downtown Clinton. After climbing a flight of stairs and upon stepping into the newly refurbished courtroom, Smedley had a strange feeling that he was entering into some kind of a theater, and that a play was about to begin. He at once became aware of four groups of costumed characters, all seemingly ready to play their parts as if they were performers in a Shakespearean tragedy.
Smedley observed that the courtroom as a stage had three separate areas, the first being the Yard of the Peasants, an area populated by about sixty low-to-middle income folks of all ages. These peasant-citizens were sitting in two sections divided by a center aisle, each section having five rows of church pews running about twelve feet wide. The males in the Yard wore a variety of shopworn blue jeans and faded plaid shirts while the females were dressed in long denim skirts and dated flowered tops. Scattered in this crowd was an occasional well dressed person, probably a parent or grandparent of one of the younger peasants.
Up ahead – separated from the Peasant Yard by a three foot high railing running across the width of the room – was the Courtyard of the Nobles. Here tables in front and on the right side of this area gave way to an elevated throne set in the rear center. Standing about were twenty-five or so distinguished looking men of all ages dressed in dark blue suits. As the play unfolded, this group was quickly identified as being court officers or lawyers for – or prosecutors of – the accused.
Another set of players standing about in the Courtyard of the Nobles were some fifteen very hefty men with trim haircuts, neat mustaches and/or goatees – all poured into skin-tight police uniforms complete with several items encased in black leather hanging on their belts – holding radios, mace, hand guns, handcuffs, and other cop stuff. Although these formidable characters had very few lines to speak as the play developed, their presence added much gravity to the drama.
Also in the Courtyard were several well dressed ladies whose job description would be “a shuffler of paper,” a task they did with unfailing pleasant smiles. Many of the peasants who were finally admitted into the Courtyard of the Nobles as the day worn on, ended up signing many of these shuffled papers as directed by these ladies.
An intriguing part of the Nobles Courtyard were two doors in the rear, one on each side of the judge’s throne, opening into two small rooms made noticeable by the constant circulation of the suited and uniformed actors going in and out. Whatever lines these players spoke behind these closed doors were never heard by the peasants: the more naive peasants sitting in their Yard, guessed that the conversations inside were light and friendly given to jokes and camaraderie; while the more cynical peasants imagined all kinds of chicanery and double-dealing was taking place.
The third distinct area of the Courtroom theater was the Holding Pen which featured two elevated rows of seats facing inward toward the Throne. While these seats are the best in the house because all the action in the Courtyard of the Nobles can be easily seen and heard from there, they are only available to shackled actors wearing orange or white jumpsuits.
The Stage is set, the actors are in place and a hush falls over the theater. The Play is about to begin.
Most of us enjoy TV courtroom dramas because our sympathies often lean toward the accused, the poor chump who is up against the “system” that is often characterized as being heavy-handed as manned by overzealous police officers, ambitious prosecutors, deal-making lawyers and indifferent judges. In these fictional TV dramatizations, the accused are defended by well trained,, underpaid public attorneys doing their noble best for their forlorn clients. As the TV drama ends, our hearts are lifted when the abused, possibly innocent peasant, somehow leaves the courtroom as a free person.
Oh, if this were only true in real life!
Next Week: The Play Begins at the Van Buren County District Courtroom. (SIC)