What comes to mind when you think of a typical courthouse? Well judges, for sure, because cases couldn’t be tried if independent arbiters weren’t there to preside over them.
Attorneys, too, because while litigants generally have the right to represent themselves and, indeed, some do, those involved in serious cases usually opt to be represented by licensed professionals.
Jurors are there, of course, because a trial by one’s peers is a constitutional right in many types of cases. Also stenographers, because an accurate transcript is essential both during the trial itself, and to prosecute any subsequent appeals.
Clerks are present too, because calendars have to be prepared, orders have to be drafted and reviewed, and records have to be kept.
However vital these people are to the effective administration of justice, none could function effectively without the protection accorded them by court officers. And yet, the only time the public seems to think about these dedicated professionals is when they quell a serious disturbance.
That’s what happened on Thursday in Supreme Court Justice Robert J. Collini’s courtroom in St. George. After a jury returned a second-degree murder conviction against Tyrell Smith, two siblings and his girlfriend allegedly approached the railing between the gallery and the defense table, screamed at jurors, and punched court officers who tried to subdue them.
At that point, according to criminal charges filed against the trio, Smith tried to jump over the railing and escape. Seven court officers were hurt in the restoration of order. Legal proceedings are fertile ground for volatile emotions that can explode at any time, in any type of case, in any judicial forum. As last week’s events illustrate, criminal defendants and their families are heavily invested in the outcome of their cases, especially when a significant jail term is likely upon conviction.
Contestants in child-custody cases are often driven more by a desire to hurt each other than to further the best interest of their child.
Even small-claims proceedings can evoke anger and vindictiveness grossly disproportionate to what the alleged grievances reasonably warrant.
Thousands upon thousands of cases like these, and myriad other highly charged matters across the legal spectrum, are heard every day, presenting a continuing challenge to those entrusted with ensuring courthouse safety.
Given the nature of the cases it handles, the Family Court may be the most challenging of all for security personnel. During my many years there as both an attorney and judge, I saw plenty of violent behavior, including lawyers fist-fighting; a child in the middle of a literal tug of war, with her mother pulling her from one side and her father from the other; parents throwing dishes at each other — the father had brought last night’s dinner to court to demonstrate how non-nutritious it was; people throwing themselves on the floor, kicking, screaming, and fighting to stay there; and others with bad intentions trying to charge the bench.
The worst of all, however, was a near-tragedy that took place in the middle of a child-abuse hearing over which I was presiding. The accused mother and father, who were married and living together, insisted that they were a terrific parenting team. The allegations of rampant drug abuse, and strangers coming in and out of the house at all hours of the day and night were, they declared, flat-out lies.
Both were especially furious at suggestions by the child protective agency that the mother might have been infected with the HIV virus.
“Do you think I’d be sleeping with her if that were true, you moron?” the husband shouted at a testifying caseworker. When the mother took the stand in her own defense, however, she eventually broke down and admitted that she had, indeed, tested positive for HIV. My eyes shot to her husband who, to my surprise, seemed unfazed by the startling concession.
As his wife was returning to her seat, he was called to the witness stand to testify. When their paths crossed in the middle of the courtroom, he whipped out a blade and swung it on an arc at her throat. In the ensuing milliseconds, I was certain we’d be on the evening news that night.
Fortunately, however, a court officer, who had positioned himself perfectly, grabbed the guy’s arm only inches from his wife’s neck and thwarted the attack. Later that day, when I commended him for his potentially life-saving action, he told me that he was just doing his job. When I asked how he happened to be at just the right place at just the right time, he said that was part of his job, too.
What happened last week in Justice Collini’s courtroom certainly was news. But those countless other days when there are no newsworthy disturbances to report in our courts are a much more important story. For they truly demonstrate just how good New York’s court officers are at doing their jobs.
These dedicated professionals perform heroically, day in and day out, with very little recognition or appreciation.
So when you think about the people who populate our courthouses, remember to include them – at the top of the list.