Family court is held in a hearing chamber, rather than a courtroom. There’s no jury, no witness box. A staff of four people presides over the proceedings: Norberto, Judy (the court clerk), John (a lawyer representing the Department of Revenue) and Jerome (a silent but very imposing and heavily-armed sheriff’s deputy).
Most of the time, the proceedings are a matter of public record, although there is no viewer gallery. Sometimes a case will cover paternity, which can involve privacy issues, so admitting the public is left up to the presiding magistrate. Norberto had me sit in a chair near Jerome's desk.
On Wednesday, the court handles contempt cases. Contempt citations are automatically generated when a parent who has been ordered by the court to pay child support falls behind on payments.
One by one, the cases were called. Sometimes both parents would appear, sometimes just the father (all of the offenders were men on this particular day). They were sworn in, and then the attorney from the Department of Revenue began questioning the deadbeat dad with quiet, ruthless efficiency. It was squirm-inducing.
“How much money do you have in your pocket right now?” He asked. “How much money could you obtain if you sold all of your possessions?” “How much money could you borrow from friends or family members?” Within 30 seconds, the offender was stammering and sweating bullets.
When the attorney was finished setting the guy up, Norberto delivered the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart punch. “You realize my only option is to put you in jail for 179 days, right?” he asked. “Or, you can come up with 500 dollars by Friday and another 500 dollars by the 16th and that will keep you out of jail. Fail to make those payments, and I will put out a warrant for your arrest.” Usually, that did the trick. However, sometimes Norberto lectured the offender, piling on several layers of guilt and shame.
On two occasions, men appeared who had worn out their welcome. Norberto explained the situation and then ordered the man to stand and put his hands behind his back. Jerome reached into a drawer and pulled out a pair of pink handcuffs that he clipped on the offender’s wrists and led him out to a holding cell, wearing a look of stunned surprise. I asked Jerome why the handcuffs were pink, and he told me they had spray-painted them to ensure that the court officers in charge of the holding cell returned them.
I’m convinced that there should be a viewer’s gallery in family court. High school freshmen should be required to spend half a day observing contempt cases, to give them a little perspective on the consequences of irresponsible parenthood.
At noon, Norberto gave me a tour of the courthouse, which is a large, modern building. He showed me their “Internet-enabled courtroom,” where pretrial proceedings in the Casey Anthony murder trial will be held, and where Lisa Nowak (the lovelorn astronaut) will be tried for attempted kidnapping. Here’s the holding cell where the accused must wait for their day in court:
Here are two views of the courtroom:
The jury box is equipped with flat-screen monitors, enabling evidence to be presented to the jury without passing around papers and photos:
It was all very high-tech and efficient-looking. Norberto has invited me to tour the county jail as well, which I expect to be low-tech and depressing. I may do it anyway, because I have time on my hands, and no outstanding warrants.