I’ve long suspected that the third floor of the downtown Los Angeles criminal courts building is the busiest waiting room in the world. At 9:00 each morning its halls are bristling with fleet-footed defense attorneys, well-tailored Deputy DAs, smiley clerks, jittery defendants, huddled family members, animated translators, bleary-eyed witnesses and boisterous police officers.
The collection results in a rowdy rumble more reminiscent of a school assembly than a courthouse.
The third floor is home to the preliminary courts. On an average day, each court has roughly 20 items on its docket. That’s 20 cases that must be heard before the presiding judge. The type of hearing varies from perfunctory scheduling hearings, to progress reports, to restitution hearings, to full preliminary hearings, which resemble a mini-trial albeit with different rules and a lower burden of proof.
Considering the number of cases and the antsy crowd occupying the hall, one might expect the courts to be a judicial revolving door, constantly ushering in inhabitants of the corridor and kicking others out at a well-oiled pace.
One would be wrong.
Slip into a court on the third floor and there is a more than decent chance you will find nothing happening. Nothing other than attorneys checking their phones, gallery members surreptitiously eating sandwiches, a translator reading their kindle, a bailiff stretching their shoulders, and the judge finicking with post-its.
There was a time when I viewed this inactivity as utter bureaucratic madness.
It felt like the waiting room at a doctor’s office on the brink of a proletariat revolt. The Highlights magazines torn into letters reading “HELP ME.” The clock broken for there was no time. The fish in the tank belly up. And the doctor in his office playing Tetris.
That was before I knew that those in the waiting room are not the only ones waiting. The doctor waits as well.
This is not bureaucratic madness. This is third floor madness. The waiting begs the inevitable question: how long will my bones stay inside my skin before they vote to leave without me?
For any given case, the assigned defense attorney, the Deputy DA, the defendant, the appropriate translators, and the required witnesses must all be wrangled into the courtroom at the same time. This should be no more difficult than herding sheep, but the defense attorneys have dozens of clients and therefore multiple hearings in a day, the DDAs deal with witnesses who don’t always show up, and if the defendant is in custody then there are any number of factors that can delay their trip from jail to the bus to the appropriate court.
So it’s much more like herding sheep from different farms while simultaneously herding the shepherds for the sheep. But the shepherds have other sheep to herd at 11:00 am and a sheep trial at 1:30 pm. And some of the sheep have day jobs they need to get back to and other sheep are “doing fine” but their attitude tells you that if left unattended they will wander into the forest or at least disappear to the nearest vending machine for a pack of Doritos.
As a result, events happen with jerks and stops, as though someone who has never used a stick shift before is perpetually driving. But the truck does move forward.
And it must move forward or third floor madness will consume us all.
When the judicial heart comes to a screeching halt, when the rhythm of the cardiac organ lacks both “lub” and “DUB” a panic sets in to the eyes of the doctor. One that attempts to mask a growing fear: not that the patient is dead but that there will never be another patient ever again.
What I mean to say is that it is 11:00 am on a Wednesday in Department 33 and a case hasn’t been called in two hours.
Even Judge Kerry Bensinger, a man with the appearance and divine patience of a middle school science teacher, is visibly peeved.
The court is waiting on a public defender, let’s call him Gary, to finish a preliminary hearing in Department 36 so that he can lug his briefcase to Department 33 and commence a multi-defendant hearing involving one of his clients. A multi-defendant preliminary hearing is viewed with exceptional gravitas as it requires two sets of sheep herding – two defendants, two defense attorneys, and, in this instance, two translators – all in addition to the usual suspects: witnesses, DDA, judge, and bailiff. Everyone is ready to go, chomping at the bit to get things done before lunch.
The absence of Gary is really mucking things up.
I know all of this because I have been sitting in the gallery since 8:30 am with the aim of watching the aforementioned multi-defendant hearing. Before 9:00 am there had been some action – a progress report and several scheduling hearings — but then the great silence set in and before I knew it my butt had been fused with the gallery bench for longer than the average rom-com.
Now, feeling third floor madness nipping at my ankles, I decide it is my duty to investigate the Gary hold-up. I conspicuously clip-clop in my high-heeled boots the whole forty feet to the door of Department 36 and peek inside. In my mind’s eye I had envisioned a slogging prelim taking place; a litany of witnesses, proceedings plagued by objections, heated debate over some controversial motion — substantive business that might cause the cardiac arrest of Department 33.
Instead I find nothing.
Well, that’s not entirely true. I do find Gary. Doing almost nothing.
He is sitting at the counsel’s table in a faded, olive green blazer, rubbing his balding head with his thick-fingered hands. The mannerisms swelter with exasperation. Gary shares the room with Judge Enrique Monguia, who seems to be in a staring match with the clock, daring it to move faster towards lunch. Laura, the Spanish interpreter is there in body but not in spirit, having collapsed on her desk in what was either sleep or an impressive imitation.
Gary, I soon discover, is not the cause of the hold-up in 36 and therefore the hold-up in 33 – it is the absence of the DDA assigned to Gary’s case, let’s call him Herbert, who is held up in Department 38. This dingus, Herbert, apparently knows that he needs to be in 36 so that Gary can get to 33, and yet he has gone to deal with his business in 38 without informing the judge or judicial assistant in 36.
It is more than fifteen minutes before the heavy door of the courtroom swings open and Herbert makes his appearance in a faded grey blazer, rubbing his completely bald head. Herbert and Gary could be brothers. Not twins, though – I’m quite certain that had the antagonistic embryos been placed in close proximity, one would have gobbled the other prior to birth.
Gary guffaws toward Herbert, muttering a sulfurous “finally” in his direction.
Herbert simply cannot take the disdain and proceeds to erupt at Gary. Herbert was in Department 36, ready for the pre-lim at 8:30 this morning. And where had Gary been?
Gary was busy elsewhere at 8:30, but he had been there at 9:30 am.
To this Herbert gives a profound scoff from the depths of his diaphragm (it really was an exceptional performance). “9:30? 9:30!”
No one really says anything after that. What could be said? Everyone knows that 9:30 is not an hour for lawyers to arrive. It may be the beginning of a work day for quirky start-ups and hipster coffee shops, and fashion bloggers and cannabis farmers – it is not the hour of the attorney. Such was the devastating blow that Herbert dealt Gary, rendering him silent and suddenly extremely interested in the paperwork in front of him.
It is now 11:15 am and the preliminary hearing in 36 is finally ready to begin, after which the multiple defendant preliminary hearing can take place in 33. The defendant, Jaime, is out of custody and seated in the gallery. His slender frame sports a sky-blue polo, diamond studs shine on his earlobes, and his hair is shaved into a spikey, black faux-hawk that zips down the back of his head like a well groomed rodent. Sensing forward motion, Jaime rises from his seat in the gallery where he has been perched for nearly three hours.
Judge Monguia shakes his head. There is still an attorney missing. We are waiting on another public defender, let’s call her Patty, who has been called because a witness in the impending preliminary hearing is in danger of self-incrimination if she takes the stand and, therefore, has the right to an attorney.
And so, we wait.
The fluorescent-lit ambiance engenders a gnawing desire to take a trip to the women’s restroom for a quick scream.
It is twenty minutes later when Patty trudges through the door. All heads swing in Patty’s direction.
It is Patty’s fault that we have waited.
It is Patty’s fault that Gary and Herbert had their tiff.
It is Patty’s fault that Department 33 was surly and catatonic by now.
“Sorry,” Patty grunts. “Traffic was bad.”
“TRAFFIC IS ALWAYS BAD!!”
The voice belongs to Judge Monguia, but even he seems surprised that the words escape his mouth with such vitriol.
A swell of embarrassment wafts over the room. Monguia embarrassed about the outburst, Patty embarrassed about the traffic, Herbert embarrassed about his lateness, Gary embarrassed about the 9:30 arrival and me embarrassed because over the course of a morning I have filled thirteen pages of a notebook with nothing but complaints and irrelevant observations, and stupid details and childish doodles.
The preliminary hearing began.
But third floor madness had won.