The courtroom looked smaller. The judges seemed less superfluous. Was it really all that different?
I didn’t go to college wanting to be a lawyer. Truthfully, I wasn’t even all that psyched about writing so-called court stories. I had bought into the pervasive notion that court stories were always formulaic vanilla transcripts. But that changed the first time I stepped into a courtroom.
I walked into U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, hoping to write my first and last real court story for my “boot-camp” journalism class. I walked out of the courtroom carrying a notebook loaded with colorful anecdotes, story ideas, and stimulating quotes. I’ll never forget it. And it wasn’t just because the defendant was wearing an Elmo “That’s What She Said” T-shirt. I was inspired. I sat on the wooden courtroom benches, leaning forward as if to get closer in what was no doubt probably an embarrassing mimic of Robert Redford’s portrayal of Bob Woodward. It felt surreal.
Stepping into the district court in Baltimore for the first time Tuesday morning felt familiar and completely different all at the same time. I suppose it is because the 10-minute bus ride is a grave underestimate of how long it has taken me to get here.
The courtroom looked smaller. The judges seemed less superfluous. But I doubt the two federal courthouses and the judges are so drastically different. At some point, when I wasn’t looking (my head was probably buried in a casebook), my perspective changed.
The rigorous demand of my first-year law studies has often left me questioning how much of the recently-accumulated knowledge overload is readily accessible. Given how seamless it felt to instantly translate legalese as terms of art spattered across the courtroom canvas, I am confident that all of my diligence in reading and briefing cases this semester has not been entirely in vain. Analytical reasoning and legal linguistics are much more accessible to me.
My perceived disconnect from the judges and attorneys seems less remote and a professional legal career somehow feels more possible. Of course, it is all less appealing to me now. I guess that’s the paradox of life – everything is less attractive in its demystification.
Learning about sentencing in terms of different criminal conduct classifications often feels detached from humanity. Casebooks are words on a page. Notes on criminal categories and corresponding sentences are outlined like a mathematical equation. By the time sentencing is deliberated, defendants have already been determined guilty. Defined by the actus reus, they are no longer people. They’re criminals. If that’s not stripping away humanity, I’m not sure what is.
In real practice, the court does not slavishly follow predetermined guidelines as some sort of insular, essentialist conception of justice. It retains human elements that account for socio-economic circumstance and the public’s evolutionary perception on legislation at the forefront. After all, circumstances are always different. Human perspectives change inside the courtroom walls and in society. The court must continue to account for and create societal changes if it is to serve any meaningful purpose in finding the ever-elusive realjustice. Because the court is made of people, I suppose this change must start on a personal level.
The cashier at the campus bookstore handed me my casebook like it was some sort of torch. “Now go be a lawyer,” she said. It sent a chill down my spine. Maybe it’s my own narcissism, but I this whole wanting-to-change-the-world thing actually starts with me. Me changing me.