Events in Washington, D.C., since the start of this year, and certainly since President Trump’s inauguration, have me thinking, among many other things, of the brief time I worked in the New York City courts.
After law school, I had the pleasure of serving as court attorney to a newly elected civil court judge. We were quite the pair, neither of us with judicial experience, but we soldiered through early uncertainty fast enough. We learned from experienced judges and staff, and were soon making a difference in tackling a substantial backlog of cases in the building. After just a few weeks, I was conferencing cases to encourage settlement, hearing arguments on legal motions, and meeting with litigants and attorneys all day every day. We also covered arraignments in Criminal Court, in the vast first-floor courtrooms of 120 Schermerhorn St.
Very quickly I learned to spot, within a few minutes (or less) of a meeting, if one of the parties was unhinged, mentally ill, delusional, incompetent or, for all intents and purposes, insane. I’m not now, and wasn’t then, judging anyone—people have problems and struggle—but it was a numbers game. Among the thousands of lawsuits and parties involved, some were bound to be not well. And given that matters in Civil Court deal with lawsuits under a certain amount, Housing Court issues its own stresses, Small Claims Court predominantly handles consumer complaints, and Criminal Court addresses law-breaking, there was a built-in tendency for challenging or troubled personalities to be present most of the time.
What makes it all work, historically and still, is that the system is filled with structures that respect rights and processes, sometimes despite the individuals to whom those rights are attached. Or as a prosecutor I know put it, “We take their rights more seriously than we take them.”
Donald Trump, as a candidate and as president, has proven again and again that he is prone to outbursts and temper tantrums, has no regard for typical restraints on presidential power, appears to have no interest in the history or positions of other world actors, and proudly has no regard for the deliberations that go into successful policy making. Concerning press, communications and media relations…I don’t know where to start. His heavy-handed, erratic management of White House staff and lack of interest in important agency appointments have created—intentionally or not—a chaotic mess in which critical work simply isn’t getting done. While every president grumbles about Congress and is frustrated by the courts, this president has no comprehension of the roles of co-equal branches of government. And, as former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony last week revealed, President Trump is absolutely at sea when it comes to the rhythm and cadence of power politics at the highest levels.
Support President Trump or not, the above is factual. Some see this as proof of his carrying through on campaign promises to dismantle the federal government’s bureaucracy and the legacy of President Obama. Others believe the above is proof of Trump’s inability to govern, evidence of a temperament completely ill-suited to governing, and proof of his being imbalanced. His recent Cabinet meeting was a bizarre exercise in forced adulation and tribute. To Trump supporters it was a show of strength; to his detractors it was another instance of a world turned upside down.
Yet things continue. Like Brooklyn Civil and Criminal courts, the systems and processes of getting things done grind on. Whatever the president says or does, the day-to-day work continues. Well-meaning, qualified professionals do their best to keep the ship upright and moving in the direction of some civic consensus.
As in conferencing a case in which one party is occupying a different reality, federal officials—and those in state and local governments immediately impacted—struggle and scramble to smooth over contradictory proposals and demands.
Seeking a settlement, working out a criminal plea, getting parties to agree to a payment schedule for back rent and repairs, keeping a mechanic from lunging across the table at an aggrieved car-repair customer, or court officers’ restraining a litigant who threatened a judge—it’s organized chaos that has too much in common with the current White House. The troubling thought is that more is getting done these days in Brooklyn’s courthouses than in all of Washington.