Themis & Alexa

by jkatejohnston

December 12

Dear Max,

Yesterday, when I boasted about how easy it is to get up early, Alexa was listening, and her punishment was swift. This morning, her alarm was so quiet and polite and soothing that I slept right through it, and now it’s almost five.

I bow to the goddess.

Continuing my exercises in putting in the world—

The main courthouse is two blocks from the jail, a six-story glass and concrete block with the look and feel of any bland government building. Inside, once you get past the metal detectors and make your way to one of the courtrooms, you find up-to-date office-style furnishings, durable carpet, fluorescent lighting—and no windows.

It took me a while to understand how this could be, since there’s plenty of glass on the outside of the building. It’s because the perimeter of every floor is a white-painted sun-filled hallway ruled by the sheriff. These hallways connect to the holding cells on the first and second floors, which in turn connect to the basement where the buses from the jail arrive early in the morning, long before the sun comes up. And so a prisoner arrives in darkness and ascends toward light, and then comes from the bright hallway into the blandly lit courtroom, blinking as his eyes adjust.

Do I really have to describe the courtroom set-up? Aren’t they all the same? The judge’s desk, still called a bench, on a raised platform with a couple of carpeted steps leading up to it. A computer monitor on the desk, placed off to the side. No gavel, except for a few judges who can’t do without the toy. Some neat stacks of books: Cal Crim (jury instructions), Emwinkwelreid’s Annotated Evidence Code, Search & Seizure Benchbook, California Felony Sentencing Handbook. And often, beside the books, a small statue of Justice in her fetching Greek drapery, blind-folded, holding up her scales, sword in hand. (Themis, actually—I just looked it up.)

Beside the bench and part of the same wooden structure is the witness chair. In front of the bench, close to the witness chair is the small table where the court reporter sets up. The jury box is off to the side, so that the witness is between the jury and the judge. The DA’s end of the long counsel table is always closest the the jury. The defense end of counsel table is closest to the bailiff’s desk, and next to the bailiff sits the clerk with her stacks of files and silent phone that lights up discretely.

Judges wear robes. They sit up high. The lights over their desks are brighter than the other lights. It’s a stage, and very few judges can resist the temptation to perform. Sentencing is their time to shine, and how they do polish their remarks.

Being a judge is one of those tests of character that most of us are never subjected to. How many of us are capable of handing down a sentence without a lecture?

All right. That’s enough exercise. Can you tell how completely bored I am by describing what things look like?