A look inside the courtroomFrom tedium to trauma. From belligerent defiance to tearful acceptance. From victims of circumstance to chronic lawbreakers. From those down-on-their-luck to those lucky to be alive. From handcuffed felons to family members protecting loved ones. Nothing is ever predictable in a court of law.
By: Jo Colvin, Alexandria Echo Press
Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series about the Douglas County court system and the Seventh District judges.
From tedium to trauma. From belligerent defiance to tearful acceptance. From victims of circumstance to chronic lawbreakers. From those down-on-their-luck to those lucky to be alive. From handcuffed felons to family members protecting loved ones.
Nothing is ever predictable in a court of law.
“We deal with people who have a lot of issues,” said Ann Carrott, a district court judge for the Seventh Judicial District. “Their behavior can be bizarre.”
“You get so used to the abnormal that it’s not abnormal to you anymore,” Judge David Battey agreed.
But there is one thing that the judges can always count on in the courtroom – there is no such thing as typical.
It’s not Judge Judy
Because there are two judges in Douglas County, while one is assigned to a “master week” (“routine” cases such as traffic court, juvenile court, conciliation, etc.), the other presides over cases to which they have been specifically assigned, such as jury trials.
On Mondays, the judges deal mostly with misdemeanors – DWIs, assaults, violation of orders for protection, speeding, driving after revocation, theft and “payable” cases, in which the defendant pays the fine and is free to go.
Tuesday morning the judges see juvenile cases. In the afternoon, it’s conciliation court – civil cases involving $7,500 or less, such as real estate deals gone bad, product liability, shoddy workmanship, bad service, landlord/tenant disputes.
“It can be fascinating and it can be just awful,” Battey said. “It’s the Judge Judy kind of stuff without the attitude. We actually have ethics. You have to treat people with respect.”
Wednesday mornings are difficult – harassment cases, orders for protection, civil commitments, people who are a threat to others. And Wednesday afternoon is worse because they have their “CHIPS” cases – children in need of protection or services.
“It’s parents not taking care of kids, kids on meth. It’s awful, it’s very bad,” Battey lamented.
“They are difficult for everybody,” Carrott agreed. “They are the most difficult, and they should be.”
On Thursday morning, the docket includes major criminal cases and felonies, omnibus hearings, pleas and sentencing. Some of those cases continue into the afternoon, along with CHIPS cases and individual motions.
Although Fridays see many probation revocation cases, the judges handle various civil and family motions, with many custody/visitation disputes and dissolutions of marriage hearings, along with a hodgepodge of other cases.
And with each case comes an extensive amount of paperwork.
“I don’t think anyone has a perception of how much work happens behind the scenes, the research and orders and decisions that we work on when we are not sitting in our robe on the bench,” Carrott said. “It’s that aspect that’s never really visible on TV and is not portrayed accurately.”
Delays bench cases
The struggling economy has made its mark on the efficiency of the court system. Funding cuts, combined with increased crime, a growing population in Alexandria and more people suing has added up to long delays.
“We’re in the courtroom more, having to do cases faster,” Battey said. “The public defenders are overwhelmed. We have to wait for them to see the people. It takes longer to get through a normal court calendar.”
According to Battey, the judicial system makes up only 2 percent of the state budget. Yet staff in the court administration office has been cut again, adding to the increased workload.
On average, the judges preside over 40 to 50 cases each day. Carrott recently had 41 in one morning.
“We’re so busy these days. There’s more to do, and fewer people to do it,” Battey added.
A look inside the courtroom
It’s not always like it is on TV. Sometimes the courtroom is boring – the judge reciting the defendants’ rights, sentences and fines by rote, repeating the same speeches over and over as each case works through.
But they aren’t all that easy. Interspersed with the shoplifting, speeding and seatbelt violations, an eclectic assortment of criminals plead their cases. In the courtroom, the mundane never lasts long.
•A middle-aged man feigns tears as Battey and the prosecuting attorneys discuss sentencing. But sympathy is hard to muster when presented with list of charges against the habitual criminal: Restraining order violations. Theft. Shoplifting ammunition – while on probation. Possession of a dangerous weapon. Discharge of a firearm. Failure to appear. Violating conditions of release. Leaving the state. And when he rudely interrupts while the judge is talking, he is threatened with contempt. The tears didn’t work.
•A handcuffed man sits at one table, his estranged girlfriend at the other. He begs for a restraining order to be dropped. Battey is always reluctant to modify such orders – especially since in this case, a knife and terroristic threats are involved. Yet the man sobs out loud as he reaches for a Kleenex, swearing that with anger management counseling, he is a changed man. He is allowed contact by phone only.
•“Robert” also wants to modify a restraining order. Despite an extensive history of physical and verbal abuse, surprisingly, his girlfriend begs the judge for the same outcome. Although she’s the one who filed the restraining order, she now insists that the abuse occurs only when he is drinking, and he’s completing chemical dependency treatment. The judge grants minimal contact. The defendant adamantly shakes his head when the judge asks if he’s going to regret it.
•“Don” is present in the courtroom yet again. The frustrated ex-husband has dutifully complied with every order imposed by the court. Yet his ex-wife, noticeably absent from the proceedings, continues to use the courtroom as a means of revenge for a relationship gone bad. The judge shakes his head in disgust as he declares it a frivolous motion and rules in favor of Don.
•A husband and wife refuse to pay for services rendered and are ordered to appear in court. The wife fails to show. An irate judge issues a warrant for her arrest, refusing to listen to the man’s arguments as to why she’s not there. He is ordered to fill out a disclosure form, which he has failed to complete from a previous order.
•A 20-year-old is charged with minor consumption of alcohol. It turns out he already has three priors and had his first DUI at 18.
“What do you do besides drink?” the judge asks, questioning if he will ever learn his lesson. He decides a few days in jail, probation and a hefty fine might help.
•“Bill” is 21 years old – legal drinking age. But he forgot that he didn’t need to run when cops crashed a party he was attending. All the minors ran, and forgetting he was 21, he ran with them.
“If people jumped over a cliff would you do it?” the judge queried, explaining that the penalty for running is much more severe than for a minor consumption. But after receiving a sincere apology, and an admittance of not using his head, the judge likes his attitude and stays part of the fine.
•Sometimes, an apparently heartless criminal can be a victim of circumstances. And it is the judge’s job to determine that.
“Shawn” is being charged with a probation violation. Probation agents and deputies testify against him. He is accused with not complying with an order to complete a chemical use and domestic abuse assessment and treatment program. His defender argues that he tried, and had completed a majority of the program, but was discharged due to non-payment. A discussion of his income determines that Shawn was barely making ends meet, and was doing all he could to be able to pay for the treatment. He is kept on probation, but is not charged with a violation of the terms.
•Throughout drunk driving cases and teens charged with possession of drug paraphernalia, an occasional glimmer of goodness appears before the judges. Faith in humanity is restored as two loving families request guardianship of loved ones unable to take care of themselves. The orders are duly signed.
The right to be heard
No matter what the case – a routine stoplight violation, or a serious crime – Battey and Carrott take them all seriously.
“The Minnesota Constitution gives people the right to have their case heard, due process,” Battey said. “We are supposed to deliver fairness. That’s the oath we took.”
“Everybody deserves the fair opportunity to be heard,” Carrott concluded. “Whether it’s a speeding ticket or a murder case, they are all important.”
• • •
Editor’s note: A clarification is needed for misinformation printed in the first story of this series. Judges are not appointed for a one-year grace period. All judges are elected, but if a vacancy occurs in mid-term, the governor can appoint to fill the vacancy and then the judge must stand for election.