Genesis 11 tells a story of thwarted civic ambitions. The people of Shinar shared a single common language and flaunted this gift by constructing a massive tower, tall enough to reach the heavens. This monument to mutual understanding was to be the hallmark of a great city called Babel. The Lord, perceiving the tower as prideful and idolatrous, responded severely. He descended upon Shinar, scrambled its language – “so that they will not understand one another’s speech” – and scattered its denizens “over the face of all the earth.” Babel the monolingual dream city was no more. But Babel, symbol of confusion and misunderstanding, survived.

It is this Babel that is conjured up by the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, which dominates the south side of West Temple Street in Los Angeles, between Broadway and Spring Streets downtown. It’s just one part of the Los Angeles criminal court system, a sprawling complex of nearly 50 locations and 600 courtrooms covering over 1,000 square miles from West Covina (east) to Malibu (west) and from Santa Clarita (north) to San Pedro (south).  Dedicated in 1972 as the Criminal Courts Building, the structure was re-named in 2002 after Clara Shortridge Foltz. Foltz, who hailed from Indiana, was the first female lawyer admitted to the California Bar and – during a speech at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair – introduced the country to the concept of a public defender who would provide assistance to indigent criminal defendants. 

But old habits die hard, and most who ply their trades at 210 W. Temple St. still call it the Criminal Courts Building.  Forty-plus years after its construction, the building has aged with the sad grace of an underfunded neighborhood elementary school or post office.  Its failing best intentions are evident in claustrophobic restrooms, drab stairwells, and tortoise-slow elevators. The ficus trees lining Broadway have caused the sidewalk to buckle; homeless men sleep on the narrow walkway outside the cafeteria windows. The Criminal Courts Building powers on determinedly, a shabby Modernist memento of a civic ideal it strains to recall, against all odds.

Department 30 is located on the Criminal Courts Building’s fifth floor – attorneys late for a hearing often take the stairs. Department 30 handles arraignments, hearings in which the defendant is brought before a judge to hear the charges against him or her and then enters a plea of guilty, not guilty or no contest. Bail is also set. It should be noted that on this day, Department 30 is actually Department 40 – a handwritten sign pinned to the original Department 30 door explains this in Kafka-ese. At 8:30 am, after the courtroom door is unlocked by one of the department’s two bailiffs, defendants (those not in custody but out on bail or their own recognizance), family members, observers and attorneys file in.  

The room is divided roughly into thirds. The gallery, with its wooden benches, comprises the initial third. Well-worn, the benches put one in mind of chapel pews. Slouching is ergonomically disincentivized. A thigh-high wooden barrier or “bar” with swinging gates right and left separates the gallery from the remaining two-thirds of the space, which features (in order of appearance) bailiffs’ tables positioned beside the swinging gates; a table of court interpreters hunched over laptops, screen contents visible to the gallery (one sported the Huffington Post homepage); counsels’ tables as well as a podium for the defense; desks for the court reporter and the courtroom clerk; and the “well” before the judge’s raised dais. Behind the dais, the flag of the United States and a wall-mounted Seal of the State of California.  

A rectangular enclosure with panels of smeared Plexiglas interspersed with sections of iron bars runs along the left side of the courtroom. This is for in-custody defendants – outfitted usually in jailhouse scrubs, they are led in from a guarded holding area by bailiffs. The in-custodies scan the gallery for familiar faces, slump on one of the enclosure’s plastic chairs, or consult with their defense attorneys through gaps in the security bars. A wood-paneled, fluorescent-lit space, Department 40-now-30, all-told, is more public library reading room than civic cathedral.

Except for the voices. Department 30 is noisy with human speech. English, Spanish, Armenian and idioms unrecognized. A public defender rears back from consulting with his invalid in-custody client, an extradition case handcuffed to his wheelchair. “I’m here to help you and you’re calling me an asshole?” A young, female Public Defender shifts her weight as she hovers over a seated DA, young and male, punctuating her negotiations with a nervous laugh. It doesn’t take a behavioral scientist to conclude that if they were packed into the kitchen at a weekend party, these two would decline to notice, let alone speak, with one another. And yet here they are, parlaying in public. Leaning mouth to ear, as if shouting over music in that same crowded kitchen. Intimacies in Department 30 depend on proximity and the press of professional responsibility.  

Dichroic listening ability. That’s what experts have labeled the capacity to identify competing words entering each ear. Needless to say, an aptitude for parsing critical information from background hub-bub is a necessity in Department 30. Actually, it’s a survival skill. On one visit, the presiding judge (the jurists circulate through Arraignments on a weekly basis) neglected to fix his lavalier microphone to an effective spot on his robes. Uncorrected, the result was aural soup. Amplified by two wall-mounted pre-Dolby auditorium speakers, the judge’s voice emerged filtered and tinny, barely distinguishable in an accompanying slurry of hisses and squeaks. The baritones of three in-custodies facing murder charges laid down a sort of pad, complemented by the higher-pitched translations of their assigned interpreters and the muttered prompts of defense counsel. At the bailiff’s desk, a tardy attorney checked in, while two DA’s swapped war-stories. All simultaneous and overlapping, an ongoing Robert Altman-esque polyphony, an aural tapestry woven taut with greetings, confessions, jokes, admonitions, and curses.

Welcome to Babel, 2019.