Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Court Today

I went to court today.

I didn't want to. 

I mean, I really didn't want to.  Unlike in past disasters, when I found a level of excitement and fun riding out a hurricane or being one of the first people to go back to Downtown Houston after a flood, my courage ran out when it came to the thought of an invisible virus that could kill me and any other family members that I spread it to.  For the past several weeks, my family and I have been staying at our lake house out in the middle of nowhere.  No one can accuse me of not taking the current crisis seriously.

Turns out, as a leukemia survivor who went through chemotherapy, I fall under that unpleasant category of "immunocompromised."  My 6-year-old son, who had his own bout of Immune Thrombocytopenic Purpura (ITP) a couple of years ago falls into the same category.   There are plenty of other Harris County CJC regulars that fall into the category as well.  Probably more than you or I even are aware of.

So trust me when I emphasize that I really didn't want to go to court today.  I've been dreading it all week.

But it couldn't be helped.  I didn't have to go to court because of a judge being unreasonable about attendance, nor did I feel a financial obligation to show up.  On the whole, I think that almost all of the courts have come into line about not requiring personal appearances.  The court where I made my appearance was, without question, one of the leaders in waiving appearances for attorneys and on-bond defendants.

What compelled me to go in was that my client had the opportunity to go home from jail today with a reasonable plea bargain offer.   But due to a language barrier (with a semi-rare dialect from an overseas nation) coupled with some possible mental health issues, I needed to be there in person with an interpreter if there was any hope of ensuring that my client was properly informed of his rights and had the ability to make an informed decision.

So, this morning, I got up, grabbed a set of latex gloves and an N95 mask and headed off to Downtown.  I stopped at Ace Hardware on the way to see if they had a cooler-looking better mask than the one I had, but unfortunately, they were sold out.  I was somewhat surprised that there was still a moderate amount of traffic on the ride into Downtown.  It wasn't gridlock but it wasn't free sailing, either.

Downtown had a healthy amount of traffic too, although nothing too bad.  I got to the garage, masked and gloved up and headed down the elevator.  Because I'm a forgetful dumbass, I had forgotten my Frequent Visitor Badge at the lake house.  I was greeted at security by a lady who tried to take my temperature.  It didn't work until the fifth try, which gave me a ton of confidence that it was working properly.  I registered a 95 and was allowed to proceed into the building.  Since I had forgotten my badge, I had to take off my shoes and belt for the metal detectors.

I swear I could feel coronavirus permeating from the floor and through my socks when I went through.

The CJC was a ghost town.  There were signs on the elevators that forbid more than two riders at a time, but it wasn't an issue.  I had the elevator all to myself.  There was one other attorney in the court when I got there, and he was hanging out in the jury room.  I went into the courtroom to see if my interpreter had showed up early, by any chance.  He hadn't, so I hung out with the bailiffs and caught up on how everyone was doing.  Most of the lights were off in the courtroom, which made a depressing situation feel even more depressing.

The judge showed up promptly at 9 a.m.  Normally, he is one of the most cheerful and cordial people in the courtroom, but he seemed beatdown today.  He was pleasant, but he wasn't himself.  He seemed tired and sad.  Quite frankly, I don't know how he could avoid being tired and sad.  He's been working his ass off since the crisis hit.  I've done many zoom conferences over the past several weeks and he's always in court, handling his docket.  He's not zooming in.  He's there in person.

I told him the details of the anticipated plea bargain and he said, sadly: "I'm sorry you have to be here.  I've been trying to keep anyone from having to be here."

I told him that it couldn't be avoided.  About that time, the interpreter showed up -- a nice, cheerful man who I had dealt with on other court settings.  He didn't bring a mask or gloves, but seemed unconcerned about needing them.  We went into the holdover where we spent a painstaking amount of time, talking to my client about his legal options.  My interpreter communicated with him through the plexiglass window to the holdover.  My client was wearing a mask, as were all of the other inmates. 

The holdover was far from full.  There were only a handful of inmates there and I could see other inmates in the adjacent holdover.  They all looked scared and I couldn't help but think that they reminded me of trapped animals in a lab.  In normal times, the holdover is a place of unmitigated testosterone, noise, and bravado.  Now it just felt like a hospital waiting room where everyone was just waiting to hear hopelessly bad news.  It was strange and it was depressing.

After being fully advised, my client signed his plea paperwork.  I told the coordinator that we had a plea ready for the judge.  Normally, I can expect a high level of good-natured banter with her when I see her in court.  But, she seemed stressed and scared.  I kept my normal routine of smart ass comments to myself.  I didn't feel like making them, anyway.

The judge had me and the interpreter stand at the back of the courtroom when my client came in to take his plea.  The prosecutor chimed in her parts via a zoom conference.  Her face wasn't even on the screen.  When the plea was over, my client was taken back into the back.  He had more paperwork to do with the probation department but my job was done.  The poor interpreter still had a long morning ahead of him.

I said goodbye to everyone in the courtroom.  The judge gave me a solemn "Thanks for coming in."

And I left.  I felt overwhelmingly depressed about it all.  I think the past few weeks of living out in the country shielded me from the reality of what it is like in Houston and the CJC right now.

I pulled off my N95 mask once I got outside. Nobody tells you how much those damn things make your nostrils itch,  They are also really lovely accentuators of how fat your face has gotten over the past few years.  Man, I really hated that thing.


I took off the gloves when I got to my floor at the parking garage, and I liberally poured hand sanitizer all over my hands and forearms.  My inner paranoia made me feel like I had contamination all over me.  I went home, threw my clothes in the washer and immediately took a shower.  It didn't ease the paranoia any.  I'm pretty sure that my visit to the CJC will add to an already impressive level of hypochondria that I've had ever since going through chemo.

Ugh.

But, more than the feelings of germaphobia, hypochondria and Dear-God-I've-GOT-to-start-on-a-diet,  I think the overwhelming takeaway from my visit to court today was how incredibly sad all of this is.  I missed seeing all of my friends on both sides of the table.  I hated seeing the judge and the coordinator depressed.  I missed the noise and bravado coming out of the holdover.  The fear in the eyes of the inmates scared me. 

I don't think that I'll be back inside the CJC for awhile.  Today's client had a rare situation that couldn't be handled by a phone call or teleconference.  I feel relief at the thought of not going back for a bit, despite the people that I miss not seeing.  To the judges and court staff who are physically going into the building every day to make sure the Justice System keeps moving, you have my respect and appreciation.  I hope you stay safe and well.

I hope that ALL of you stay safe and well.  

I look forward to the day when we can all be back together under happier and safer times.

12 comments:

Richard Patterson said...

You clearly went above and beyond what many of would be willing to do. All our respect to you.

Michael Nassif said...

Thanks for sharing your feelings and observations through this shit show. Your insight is appreciated and understood by me, and I’m sure most others, who normally work in the CJC every day. Stay safe and keep up the good work! AMDG.

Tom Berg said...

You are a brave guy and understand duty. What you did was essential and worthy. I hope we all survive this sad darkness.

Tom Berg said...

You are a brave guy and did your duty. Hope we all survive this sad darkness.

Anonymous said...

If your client was charged with a felony that was worthy of probation, why was he in jail instead of out on a pre-trial bond?

Murray Newman said...

Anon 12:03 p.m.,
There are multiple scenarios that can describe the situation where a pre-trial bond may not be granted but a DADJ or probation can be. I'm not going to go into the details of my client's case because of attorney-client privilege, other than to say he fit one of those multiple scenarios.

Anonymous said...

What was he charged with?

Anonymous said...

No one mentions the pretrial services officers, clerks, and court liaison officers who are also being put at risk everyday when they go to work.

Murray Newman said...

Anon 7:02 p.m.,

I've said all I'm going to say about my client's case. That wasn't the point of the post.

Anon 6:56 a.m.,

I said "To the judges and court staff who are physically going into the building every day to make sure the Justice System keeps moving, you have my respect and appreciation. I hope you stay safe and well."

By "court staff," I meant everyone going up there.

Anonymous said...

I have been going to court 2-3 days a week since operations screeched to a halt at the CJC. No one is making me go. But I find that if I am in front of the judge in person, I get quicker service than sitting on a ZOOM call. And like Murray noted, there are situations where you just have to be face-to-face with your client to get the work done. I know there are mechanisms for video-conferencing, e-pleas, and other remote attorney-client interactions, but they are not up to speed just yet for every situation.

The court staff, especially the bailiffs, are at the highest risk for exposure. Please give them an extra (distance-appropriate) fist-bump next time you see them.

I will say this: The courthouse is probably safer than say, the grocery store. Your temperature is checked (a contest of math/estimates for my kids to guess mine before I head out), you face a battery of COVID-exposure questions before you enter, and the place is a ghost town. Nobody on elevator, 10 to a courtroom, everyone masked and gloved up, wiping and spraying abound.

These strange times are teaching us all in ways we may not be able to explain just yet. But we are learning nonetheless. Ya'll stay safe, my friends.
Sally Ring

Anonymous said...

I have been going to court 2-3 days a week since operations screeched to a halt at the CJC. No one is making me go. But I find that if I am in front of the judge in person, I get quicker service than sitting on a ZOOM call. And like Murray noted, there are situations where you just have to be face-to-face with your client to get the work done. I know there are mechanisms for video-conferencing, e-pleas, and other remote attorney-client interactions, but they are not up to speed just yet for every situation.

The court staff, especially the bailiffs, are at the highest risk for exposure. Please give them an extra (distance-appropriate) fist-bump next time you see them.

I will say this: The courthouse is probably safer than say, the grocery store. Your temperature is checked (a contest of math/estimates for my kids to guess mine before I head out), you face a battery of COVID-exposure questions before you enter, and the place is a ghost town. Nobody on elevator, 10 to a courtroom, everyone masked and gloved up, wiping and spraying abound.

These strange times are teaching us all in ways we may not be able to explain just yet. But we are learning nonetheless. Ya'll stay safe, my friends.
Sally Ring

Anonymous said...

I’m sorry but You are the problem. You are the reason this hasn’t stopped. Do us all a favor and stay home. Stop putting the judge and out her staff at risk all because you want quicker service. That is selfish.