President Lincoln reportedly used to occasionally sit on the back steps of the White House and talk to old friends who might just drop by. President Truman used to play poker at his Key West, Florida White House with ordinary folks. President Jackson invited the hoi polloi to his inauguration and they came and trashed the White House. There was a time America’s leaders thought of Americans as equals, or at least not as persona non grata. Now there are fences and armed guards at the White House and the only time a president makes personal contact with Americans is to have a photo op. Democracy is now pretty much non-democratic.
Our politicians often ascribe the responsibility for this metamorphosis to need for security, that is, fear of contact with us. I suggest it has more to do with their desire to just pick up their tax payor funded paychecks while being left alone. Kind of like getting COVID-19 checks not to work. Anyway, my experience in working for the public has been that it has not been a concern for my security or anyone else’s that has brought about such distance between public servants and the public. But it comes more from a realization that there simply is very little difference between those who control the government and those who are controlled by it, and the controllers are afraid that will be found out. At least that is true with the judicial branch and the legal system. I invite you, Gentle Reader, to return with me to at least one incident from those “thrilling days of yesteryear” to help me illustrate my concerns about the loss of direct connection to our office holders.
When the State of Indiana used justices of the peace to process most minor legal matters such as driving offenses and small civil claims, the “courts” were often held in the homes or store fronts owned by the justices. One would appear before some non-formally trained person who would dispense justice in a relaxed atmosphere and at little cost. Then we “improved” the system by requiring legally educated and licensed judges and publicly financed court facilities. Everything became more complex, costlier and more distant.
In Posey County, Indiana the County Court that replaced the Justice of the Peace system in 1975 was jammed into a portion of the 1927 Memorial Coliseum Building. The original coliseum was built as a community center. It had a swimming pool, a gymnasium, a stage for shows and a pool table. The new County Court, including the judge’s chamber, took up three small rooms next to where the pool table was. And another feature was the closet in the approximately 20-foot by 30-foot courtroom where the Daughters of the American Revolution ladies kept their regalia to be used in their meetings that also were held in the courtroom.
When I was the Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for Posey County, 1976-1978, I tried six-person jury trials in that courtroom. As we had no separate jury room we would try a case then leave the jury in the courtroom alone to deliberate on their verdict. Everyone in the courtroom could reach out and almost touch everyone else. Of course, there was little pretense of confidentiality. I know it sounds bizarre but it worked okay and no one, including the judge and the attorneys, could arrogate themselves into special status. Please let me tell you about one of my favorite cases from that halcyon time.
I was a little younger then and one of the cases I prosecuted involved a misdemeanor charge against a Billy ______ who was about my age. Billy represented himself in the jury trial. After Billy and I traded accusations and insults during final arguments the judge gave the case to the jury then ordered the courtroom cleared except for the jury. Billy and I stepped out to the adjoining room where both a soft-drink machine and the pool table were located.
As we attempted to ignore one another, Billy turned to me and said, “Hey, Jim, do you play pool?” As I grew up in Pawhuska, Oklahoma at a time when the only thing other than the ball field was the pool hall, of course I played pool.
“Yeah, Billy, I play pool and I can beat you at that too. By the way, I thought you did okay in court, but be prepared for the gavel to fall.” I was much more sure of myself then.
“Jim, do you want to put anything on the pool game?”
“No, Billy, that would be illegal; go ahead and break.” I did not mention that a portion of my tuition at Oklahoma State University came from non-legal lucre.
Well, we played as the jury was busy deciding they didn’t care if I thought Billy was a menace to society; they sided with Billy. Since that trial Billy and I have had several contacts of the legal variety and you may note Billy is still playing pool but now my pool table is in my barn.
In my opinion, America could use a reprise of some of that by-gone legal system where the people who are processed and those who do the processing are not separated by layers of convolution. As Eva Peron might say, ♫ I’ll keep my promise, don’t keep your distance.” ♫