Last week’s column set forth the background for today’s story, describing the theatrical setting for the search for justice in the Van Buren County District Courtroom. The stage is set, the actors are all in place. The play begins with a shouted command by the bailiff as he stands in the center of Courtyard of the Nobles:
Coming forth from a door at the rear right is a rotund, bearded, balding man draped in a black robe, now climbing up to the elevated throne in the center of the Courtyard. As this somber figure takes his seat, the bailiff advises, “Be seated!” which command seems only to apply to the people who are confined in the Yard of the Peasants, the place where the accused with their friends and relatives and a handful of witnesses sit.
The judge begins the drama by referring to the docket, a schedule of the many cases in front of the judge requiring legal action such as entering pleas, dismissals of charges, sentencing, continuances, short bench trials, and other matters. Most of the cases heard in the District Court are a variety of common misdemeanors such as disorderly conduct, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, failure to appear, breaking and entry, battery- all serious enough, however, that conviction could result not only in monetary fines but time in the county jail. The more serious felony crimes are heard in the Circuit Court.
The first set of cases called are those whose defendants have arranged for private attorneys to represent them before the court. This deference is made to recognize that lawyers’ time is expensive so their hanging around a courtroom waiting their turn is not in the best interests of their clients. Also, matters handled by these paid professionals do not take up a lot of the court’s time as most of the negotiations have taken place prior to the court session. The usual practice here is that the judge is asked by the two sides, prosecutors and defendant’s lawyers, to endorse legally to what the two parties have agreed upon. Here, the judge questions the defendant asking if he agrees with the arranged plea bargain, and then he signs off their deal.
What remains on the judge’s docket after the private attorneys have left is a long list of cases in which the defendants have either no attorney or they have been assigned a lawyer, known as a public defender, by the court previously. Ninety percent of defendants in Arkansas are represented by public defenders, which speaks of the typical defendant’s inadequacy to afford a private attorney. In this situation, the defendant files an affidavit listing his assets, which document the judge will examine and then agree or not to provide a public defender. If a public defender is furnished, the defendant is required to pay a fee of $100 to the state.
Sounds good so far. The defendant now has a lawyer who will sympathetically analyze the defendant’s side of his predicament. The lawyer will search his law books for some wiggle room to save his client from jail time, money, or both. He will subpoena witnesses, arrange for experts to testify, and gather stories extolling his client’s splendid character for the court to hear. Yeah, right!
But don’t hold your breath here. For all the efforts mentioned above needed to fish a defendant out of the system’s lagoon, the public defender who, being paid only a very modest yearly salary, does the best he can with the limited amount of time and money he has to work with. He is simply out moneyed by the prosecutors’ office which is fully funded by the state. The Public Defender receives no extra money to pay for experts and investigators – all of which are freely available to his opponent. While a private attorney – armed with fees of $200 per hour and up front retainer fees ranging up to several thousands – has the resources to defend adequately, the public defender can only spend a limited amount of time looking over his client’s case as he has scores more piled up needing his immediate attention as well.
The District Court drama seems like a stylized Japanese kabuki production, with much form but little substance. Idealistically the court is to seek thorough and timely justice, but in reality, it operates more like a paper mill, pushing as much paper through as fast as possible because there is another overwhelming load of cases backing up on the docket. The operational reality of the court is that there are more cases than there is money and time to hear each case to the idealized standard of conscientious private attorney representation.
Next Week: Villains and Heroes in the Courtroom Drama.