Alan Chartock | I, Publius: A day in court becomes a learning experience

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GREAT BARRINGTON >> Once years ago, when I was writing a column like this and, unlike today, had some time on my hands, I went to a court session in Great Barrington.

I thought it might be interesting to write about a day in a local court. In fact, it was just that — interesting.

It was quite a while back but it was clear, even in Great Barrington, that the cast of characters in this particular court was pretty consistent. The accused kept coming back with their lawyers and the cases were continued based on the good behavior of the supposed lawbreakers.

I was making some notes on a yellow pad I had with me when I was approached by the court clerk who said that the judge had asked to see me in his chambers. The judge was a charming man, gentle in nature and quite decent in his approach. He was sadly taken from us at an early age but at the time, he engaged me in conversation, asking me if there was anything he could do to help me. I told him what I was doing and he explained the nuances of the court. I came away very impressed with the judge and the process.

Those were the days when newspapers had enough reporters to do a proper job covering the courts. Now courts are covered when we have a sensational case.

When I was a kid on Fire Island, Saturday was court day. The Honorable William Mehlman was the Fire Island judge and he ruled with an iron hand. It was quite entertaining and had a real social feel to it. The proceedings were held in the Community House, which doubled as the movie theater at night. Such crimes as (I kid you not) a man walking topless — illegal in those days — and another eating an ice cream cone were dragged before the law.

Since it was an upscale community, there were often Clarence Darrow-like moments in which major lawyers appeared for the defense on the smallest of charges. Often, for some of the more celebrated cases, there wasn't an empty seat in the place.

Probably the crime of the century involved a group of teenagers or maybe even pre-teens stealing some television sets and storing them in a shed. Of course, they were discovered and the seriousness of the crime warranted strict retribution from the law. The young people were banished from Fire Island in lieu of jail time. It was illegal, of course, and years later those same kids, now adults, were very much present on the Island.

Judges, of course, are people. The dynamic changes when there's an audience. Judges are human and fallible. They have tremendous power. They can hold people in contempt who tick them off. Thank heavens we have appellate judges who can ride herd on the lower court judges, who, perhaps playing to the crowd, do things that are not legal. That's why it is both a curse and a blessing to have the public in court.

There is a man in Great Barrington who walks the streets appearing disheveled to some. He offends some citizens as he pushes his conveyance through the streets. Since so many of us are theoretically in sync with the homeless (who really knows if they are homeless), I suspect that this individual is testing us all for our liberal hypocrisy.

New York City is filled with self-identified homeless people and each one has a story. The Great Barrington guy happens to be articulate and some might say, brilliant. He is a college graduate who has run for public office in our town (I voted for him.) He defies labels and he keeps it interesting. He was convicted of disobeying the law and a higher court overruled the judge in the case.

My conclusion: everyone should go to court. You'll learn something and keep the system honest.

Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Berkshire Eagle.


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