I get to the court building in Queens early Wednesday morning. I go through a metal detector, and inside there’s a large mosaic, depicting what seem to be various Greek deities involved in acts of justice. I find it ugly but interesting: lately I’ve been thinking more than usual about justice—as an abstract concept, the point of it, whether it exists. I am here, in this place, to observe it in action. I stop studying the mural.
Arraignments in Queens begin at 9:00 a.m. and go until 1:00 a.m., with some breaks. An arraignment is typically the first part of the process in criminal court, during which the person accused of a crime is read their charges. The accused can then enter a plea. Bail may be negotiated; new court dates are set; from there, the process moves on. An arraignment is a boring procedural thing, most of the time. It is also one of the central rights of a person detained—the appointment that keeps them from being held indefinitely. It is also a place where some of justice’s great injustices are on display.
Just after 9:00 a.m., I arrive at the courtroom. There are two police officers at the door, and I tell them I’m a reporter. “Like a student?” one of them asks. “No, a reporter,” I say. They let me in, quizzical. Nothing that is happening today is going to be “news.” I sit down in one of the benches, which has the feel of a Boston church pew.
Something is already happening, though it isn’t quite clear what. I feel like some sort of game is being played in front of me, but I know only some of the rules. A judge sits in robes under an etching in marble: IN GOD WE TRUST. There is a great deal of stapling, and shuffling around of blue folders, and signing of papers. There are seven cops.
A tall one yells at me to get my feet off the bench in front of me. I do. A case begins. It’s a woman, who may or may not have been driving a stolen vehicle. She’s given a date to come back, October 11, and released. Next. A man pleads guilty to driving without a license and agrees to pay a fine of $75 plus $88 in court fees. The judge asks him if he’s aware that pleading guilty means he’s waiving his right to a fair trial, and he says he is. Did anyone force him to plead guilty? No. Resolved.
The prosecutors begin a lot of their sentences with “The people . . .” As in, “the people of New York State,” whom we represent, charge you with this crime. It’s such an odd concept, I think, that the people are somehow here in this courtroom, that the people broadly are interested in this man with a ponytail who pleads guilty to disorderly conduct and pays $120 in court fees.
It is very cold in court. I get goose bumps. The cases usually take three minutes, maybe five. The judge dismisses people and tells them to stay out of trouble, not get arrested, and report back at a later date. The case will be sealed in six months, he says. Often, he issues a protective order of some kind: you cannot contact this person in any way, at all, and if you do, you’ll be in trouble. For some reason, I’m spending a lot of time weighing whether I think the judge is nice or not. He and the cops and the lawyers smile and laugh a lot during the breaks between the cases, which seems fine, because people do that at work, but also weird because of the gravitas of the whole environment.
There is a jail attached to the courtroom. Some people who’ve been convicted of more-minor crimes didn’t spend the night there, so they walk up from the benches. But most defendants come out of the jail, escorted by a policeman, with their hands behind their backs. The 15th arraignment of the morning is a man in his 50s, who holds a baseball cap behind his back.
The prosecution says he was involved in an armed robbery that left people injured, and that he told their client, a 70-year-old man, “If you get me locked up, I’ll fuck you up.” His lawyer says he denies having any role in the crime. He says the complainant has been spreading lies about him. There’s a lot of confusion about something in the timeline of the case—which happened first?—and a lot of shuffling of papers. The judge sets bail at $10,000 bond and $10,000 cash, and he goes back to jail.
Next, a 10th grader is charged with a felony assault. He faces up to a year in jail. There’s talk about his record: He had been on probation. The defense suggests the prosecution is misrepresenting his record. The judge gets impatient. “Though he’s innocent as he stands before this court, we want to hear the record,” the judge says, which seems like a bit of a paradox to me, but oh well. His bail is set: $5,000 bond and $1,000 cash, or a $2,500 credit card alternative.
I think about a lot of things: Zadie Smith’s recent short story that everyone was so mad about, where she admits to sympathizing with the guilty. I think about the tensions between the victims’ rights movement, when it comes to sexual violence, and broader efforts toward justice reform. I think about Aaron Persky, the judge in the Brock Turner case, and how I wish he had not been recalled.
A man climbed onto the subway tracks, and the judge dismisses the case. He tells him not to climb onto the subway tracks again. Some women appear, not in sequence, before the court, after an undercover police officer appeared at their massage parlor and said they needed a license. There are some questions about evidence that I don’t understand. The charges and case numbers are strings of letters and numbers, and it’s hard to hear what the prosecutors are saying.
A homeless man appears. He stole two sandwiches from a deli. The judge says he looks familiar; it turns out he has “a bit of a record,” his defense lawyer says. The prosecution seeks a bail of $500, but the defense lawyer asks if the judge will waive it if the man meets with a social worker from her office. The judge agrees and advises the man to get help. “You’re on a bad path,” he says. He’s let go.
A man is extradited to Georgia. A man told police he had two Coronas before driving. A man comes out, handcuffed, arrested for killing someone in 2011, which he denies. A woman threw a fan at a man after she said he wouldn’t leave her alone. A man was caught with some weed.
Before noon, a group of high schoolers files in and fills the front benches. They’re here as part of a summer internship program with the district attorney’s office. The judge pauses for a few minutes to address them and answer some questions, and I do get the sense that he really is nice, though it’s irrelevant. He talks about what he takes into consideration when setting bail, and how he likes having alternatives to incarceration. He talks about how he and the district attorney and the public defenders are really sort of a triangular team, working toward justice and hoping to help people. He mentions that he once got a speeding ticket and it scared him, so it’s hard to imagine how people in court for crimes feel. He talks about a bad case he still thinks about, where he felt like there were no winners at all.
Court starts up again.
There is a lot of stapling of papers. Forty-five people have been arraigned. The court breaks for lunch.