My Day in Court

The young woman at the drive-thru took my money, made change and turned to pick up the iced tea I had ordered. When I saw the distinctive lip piercing and faux fur hood, pushed back on her small shoulders, a cold fear came over me that she would recognize me, as I had recognized her.  We both had spent the day before in General Sessions Court — not together, yet linked. I was a victim/witness there in a case where she was accused of rear-ending my car and speeding away.

I took the tea from her hand, said thank you and hit the gas. After some careful deliberation I drank the tea, gambling that by the time she might have recognized me it was too late for her to spit in it.

The crime was minor, I know this, but that she drove so fast past a middle school with a kid-packed sports event across the street, really hacked me off.  And yes I did too follow her, no I did not catch her, and yes I was warned later by the police officer who cited her for speeding that what I did was not the best way to go.

Duly noted. 

Rough Start, Smooth Finish

The temperature was in the 20s as I walked to the A.A. Birch Building in downtown Nashville for court. A lot of people converged at the doors at the same time, uncertainty, dread or fear on most of their faces. Some were dressed in Sunday Best but most in jeans and sweat pants and many without warm enough coats. 

We were all herded like cattle through the doors, as security guards began yelling instructions. I’ve been through a lot of metal detectors — airports, discount clothing stores, prisons — and never have I been treated with such contempt. “CELL PHONES OUT! BELTS OFF! SHUT THE DOOR!” I felt unnerved and guilty just standing in that line as the guards barked orders, not waiting for people to act before yelling some more.

Of those staffing the check-in process, I encountered just one young woman who didn’t look like she hated her job and all of us. She was smiling and pleasant, which was remarkable given her tense work environment.

As you know, lawyers have a separate entrance, or can use an express line. While this has obvious benefits, it may insulate you from understanding the first impression the general public is getting of the justice system. And it is not positive. Don’t misunderstand me here: I want courthouse security and a lot of it. But the same amount of safety can be achieved without bullying and without making everyone hate the legal process before it even gets started.

With the surly security behind me, I arrived upstairs at General Sessions Court, Division 9 — Judge Sue McKnight Evans’ courtroom — feeling a bit of anxiety. While I waited in the hall to go in, one man was brought back out and instructed to tuck his shirt in, all the way around please sir, in compliance with the dress code posted on an easel by the door. The officer was courteous, the man complied and things started looking up.

It was like a beehive in there with everyone seeming to know where to go except for me. I soon realized that most people did not know where to go, where to stand or sit or what to say. But the vibe in the courtroom was different from downstairs, very different.

It is trite to say that when Judge Evans walked in she lit up the room, but she did put everyone at ease with her gracious, kind smile. She addressed the defendants in the room respectfully, explaining that when they were called up to the bench she would ask them two questions: Do you understand your rights? Do you waive your right to a jury trial?

Explaining how the process was going to work, she added, “Sorry. It’s just going to take a while.”

She used the phrase, “Do you understand?” a lot that day, each time looking directly into the eyes of the defendant, speaking plainly and with respect.  Sometimes bluntly but always calmly, she took a grandmotherly this-is-for-your-own-good approach as she detailed each consequence and option.

At one point, I overheard one of the lawyers at the back of the room explaining quietly to a client how to act when he approached the judge, and not to be fooled by her casual, smiling demeanor.

“She is so low-key,” he said, “but a number of people are going to jail today.”

I have to admit during those hours an image of the old TV sit-com “Night Court” flew through my head. But then I began to see a pattern and tone emerge from the chaos.
The lawyers and court officers constructed a framework to which frightened, confused or indifferent people clung. The guts of our legal system were profoundly illustrated in that room. The lawyers were lifelines for most of these people who had shown up, not knowing exactly what to expect or what to do. The lifelines were not just the defense attorneys: the assistant district attorney and the judge were there for the defendants and the process, too. For each of the pro se litigants, I saw Assistant DA David Vorhaus explain in detailed layman’s terms what the defendant was facing and what his decisions would mean. Vorhaus explained and answered questions as slowly and considerately as if he did not even notice the absolute swarm of humanity with same or bigger problems, all waiting in line to see him. With 90 to 100 cases on a typical day, that’s a lot of talking and a lot of patience.

From my seat in back watching the low buzz of continuous activity, I couldn’t tell who were public defenders and who were private or appointed attorneys. They were all sharp, very busy and talked to their clients with varying levels of patience. One well-dressed lawyer looked disdainful and distressed, as if he regretted being saddled with this unpleasant job.  Another, rather pompous man got angry with his bewildered client for leaving to go to the bathroom. One lawyer, older than the rest, answered questions and seemed to take people’s lives and their current situations very seriously. Another man looked right into his client’s eyes as if they were equals, explaining what was about to happen and what the penalties might be. He even did this in two languages.

If I were in the shoes of any of those defendants, I knew I would want that guy in my corner. I later learned that his name is Daniel Satterfield — and he was the only public defender in there that day. He is 30, and has been out of Hofstra University School of Law for five years.

“I love being a public defender,” Satterfield told me later. “I feel blessed to have the opportunity every day to serve the most vulnerable of Nashville. But I won’t deny that it is an immense and daily challenge to serve so many to the standard that our laws require. In addition to the constitutional requirements of ensuring my clients are knowledgeably entering pleas and zealously defended at trials and hearings, one personal goal of mine has been to do everything in my power to make sure that each client feels listened to and respected.”

Nashville’s Public Defender Dawn Deaner is proud of that. “Often times criminal defendants are not treated with any respect by anyone in the criminal justice system. Regardless of whether we can obtain the ultimate outcome each client is seeking, and regardless of what our client is charged with doing, one of the values we uphold at our office is to treat each client with respect and human dignity.”

On the morning I saw Daniel Satterfield represent 15 clients at the same time, he met that goal. (There were 28 charges for the 15 defendants, among them the young woman I was there about. She pled guilty and is now doing some combination of probation and community service.) He tells me that day was typical, his caseload fluctuating between seven and 30 every day.

The process within this court is inherently messy, but the cogs of the wild wheels seem to be working well in Division 9. If your practice doesn’t take you into General Sessions, you might drop by sometime to see it work. I was pretty proud of our legal system in the midst of that crazy sausage-making.


SUZANNE CRAIG ROBERTSON is editor of the Tennessee Bar Journal.