Sep. 25, 2018
A high school student’s view of the Los Angeles County Superior Court
Walking into the inner sanctum of a judge’s chambers, I immediately felt a sense of awe. Sure it was filled with lots of diplomas, certificates, and accomplishments, but I felt like I was somehow behind the curtain of the “Wizard of Oz.”
Walking into the inner sanctum of a judge's chambers, I immediately felt a sense of awe. "I wonder how many attorneys have actually been in a judges' chambers?" I asked myself. Sure it was filled with lots of diplomas, certificates, and accomplishments, but I felt like I was somehow behind the curtain of the "Wizard of Oz."
This summer, I was fortunate enough to participate in an internship for the Los Angeles County Superior Court. This is an amazing opportunity and educational program for high school and college students.
Does the court run perfectly? Obviously, no. Nothing is perfect. Does the court run well? Well, yes, and then some. In fact, as an observer and active participant for over two months, I was incredibly impressed. There were three aspects of the court that particularly stood out.
First and foremost, the most exceptional aspect about the court is the people who work there. Yes, of course, the judges are smart, wise, compassionate, kind and friendly. They all went out of their way to talk to me, to show me how the legal system worked, and to ask me questions about my future.
But it was not just the judges that were so remarkable; all employees of the court made the system work superbly. It was courtroom assistants and the judicial assistants who greet the attorneys and parties when they first enter the courtroom and make sure that the calendar runs efficiently. It was the sheriffs, bailiffs and security officers who not only ensure the safety of the citizens in the court but are also proactive in trying to help people get the information they need. The same goes for the court administrators, managers and file clerks.
The breadth of different specialty courts is equally remarkable. On any given day, I could be in a criminal court watching a felony trial, a civil court observing a personal injury trial, then a family law matter, a traffic case, a small claims case, and still a different court for domestic violence restraining orders. Each bench officer and staff member handled their matters with expertise, diligence and great care.
Second, in addition to the people, I was equally impressed with how well the law governs our citizens' disputes. The internship provided an up close and personal experience with how judges make decisions. Most people think of the law as a set of rules to follow. However, the law is clearly not just a set of rules that are to be automatically applied. To the contrary, all of the bench officers with whom I spoke confirmed that attorneys should understand how open and malleable the law is to interpretation. The law is designed to be intentionally vague in order to handle such a wide variety of circumstances.
For example, in a personal injury case, the law of negligence uses a "reasonable person" standard. This is where the lawyers' skill and experience come in to play. They can argue what the term "reasonable person" means under the specific facts of the case. I learned that a good attorney makes all the difference.
So, what is the potential "bad" or "downside" I learned about the legal system? It is that not all lawyers are equal. In our system, Lady Justice is not so blind when it comes to the different quality of lawyering. In many of the cases I observed, it seemed like the better lawyer would prevail, even if he or she did not have the best facts or the law perfectly on their side. The better lawyer was more thoroughly prepared, performed solid legal research, knew the facts of the case, and was able to persuasively articulate his or her case. Fortunately, most attorneys were well prepared and represented their clients well.
Third, and finally, I came to appreciate how much litigation is a process. Just as life is a journey, civil cases too must follow a process and go through specific stages before reaching an ultimate conclusion. The courts showed me how a litigated case follows a chronological process, which we understand as "due process."
Any kind of civil dispute can get the litigation process going; an automobile accident, a contract that is breached, a sexual harassment charge, or a civil rights claim against the government.
No matter the type of case, every single case has a beginning point -- the filing of the complaint -- and an end -- a dismissal or judgment. That entire process is governed by rules: civil procedure. These rules tell the parties and the attorneys how the system works, how the case is to be litigated. The rules give structure and certainty to the process.
And, this process is in large part what makes our court system so great. Whether a party wins or loses in trial, it was clear that the parties and the law provide a fair process, which sought the truth, and attempted to do justice. When I completed my internship, I was more impressed than ever that our system works so well, even with its flaws that we hear about in our 24/7 media frenzied world.
On the last day of my internship, I watched a hearing on a motion for summary judgment, involving a wrongful death claim. The motion was denied. At the conclusion of the hearing, the attorney for the party who had filed the motion started to walk out of the court... then he stopped and said to the judge... "You know, I realize that my side can't always win, but I appreciate how well you handled the matter and how thoroughly prepared you were in resolving the motion."
In our American legal system, where attorneys zealously advocate on behalf of their client in the hope of prevailing, it is logically impossible for every party to win. Indeed, half the parties typically lose. Yet, they have their day in court; they are treated with dignity and respect, and there is a genuine sense that justice is served.