If you will permit me a diversion from my normal musings on the life of an in-house counsel, I write to relay my experience from my recent visit to the redheaded step-child of the court system, traffic court.
Sadly, I had the occasion this past week to visit my county traffic court not in my capacity as an attorney, but as a defendant. While I had received my speeding ticket fair and square, like all good attorneys, I opted to have my day in court, much to my wife’s chagrin.
For those of you not familiar with traffic court, it feels more like a cattle call than a traditional courtroom drama. I was joined by 50-75 of my co-defendants who had offenses ranging from the run-of-the-mill speeding ticket up to seasoned offenders with dozens of tickets and DUIs.
Much like attendance in a college lecture hall, a roll was taken where three of my co-defendants were promptly arrested for an outstanding warrant. Why one would freely walk into a court knowing they have an outstanding warrant is beyond me, but nevertheless, the stage was set, and the mood in the room was tense.
That is until the judge walked out.
After the perfunctory “all-rise,” the judge took his seat and flashed a grin and a greeting to the courtroom that put everyone at ease. Whether it was his silver hair or gentle features, even the most hardened of my co-defendants seemed to immediately relax.
Over the course of the next hour, the judge one by one called each of the defendants up to the bench and took the time to hear their story and judge its veracity before issuing his ruling.
The first to approach the bench was a mother of three who had taken all the necessary steps to reinstate her driving privileges, but claimed her $1,325 reinstatement fee was preventing her from obtaining her license and keeping her from being able to get to her job.
With a flash of his smile, the judge thanked her for her diligence and waived her outstanding fee much to her astonishment and delight.
The next defendant approached and asked the judge to speak slower as English was his second language. The judge quipped that between his broken Spanish and the defendant’s broken English, he was going to reschedule the hearing and arrange for an interpreter to be present at the next hearing to ensure he received a fair trial. And off defendant number two went.
He later forgave another defendant’s outstanding back payments so they he may instead focus his additional resources on his child support payments rather than worrying about delinquent traffic fines.
He used humor, when appropriate, including encouraging a defendant to avail herself of Lime or Bird Scooters in favor of taking the wheel again given her lengthy rap sheet.
And he used his authority, when necessary, including having his bailiff arrest a defendant who had numerous unpaid speeding tickets dating back to 1993.
At the end of the day, I walked away with a renewed sense of faith in our judicial branch.
While the recent Kavanaugh hearings may have cast doubt on the branch, I am thankful for this traffic judge and the countless others of his peers across the nation who help restore faith in our judicial system each day.
Out of the 50-75 of my co-defendants who appeared before the judge that day, you would be hard pressed to to find one who felt they were treated poorly or unfairly. This judge executed his position of authority in a manner which would make all proud.
So to those fearful for the future of the Supreme Court, I’d recommend you look a little closer to home and to the thousands of local judges each day who are using their positions of influence for good.
While the future of the Supreme Court may be at crossing roads, based off my recent experience, I am remain optimistic as to the future of the court system.
Even if it did take me viewing it from the perspective of a defendant to realize it.
Stephen R. Williams is in-house counsel with a multi-facility hospital network in the Midwest. His column focuses on a little talked about area of the in-house life, management. You can reach Stephen at email@example.com.