Experiences with court from law-abiding citizens

Compiled by Alicia D. Partridge with responses from: Erenia Michell, Rajan De Los Santos, Cynthia Thurlow, Alicia D. Partridge, Arlen McCluskey and James Kim.

First Circuit Court Building, Honolulu

For most of us, our first time in court was intimidating. On Monday Oct. 18, our combined undergraduate Journalism 401 and graduate communication 691 class went to court. We took an insiders tour of Honolulu’s First Circuit Court on Punchbowl Street in Honolulu. While there, we took a tour of the building, sat in on some trials, got one-on-one time with Judge Ahn and were taken down to the holding cells.

The circuit court is one branch of Hawaii’s Judicial System. General jurisdiction includes civil and criminal cases.  They have exclusive jurisdiction in probate guardianship, and criminal felony cases, as well as civil cases where the contested amount exceeds 20,000. Ninety percent of the cases are drug-related.

Photo by Arlen McCluskey

Photo by Arlen McCluskey, Inside the courthouse, view from third floor

The trip to the court was an interesting one, particularly the physical and procedural set-up and role-play, Rajan De Los Santos explained. The five-story building has an imposing Bauhaus structure with a cavernous atrium canopied by red and blue stained-glass roofing.

Our first stop was courtroom 18 of the Honorable Colette Y. Garibaldi.

As we sat down in the small area designated for spectators we learned that some people serve as multiple positions. We thought it was interesting to learn who does what: the judge, bailiff, court reporter and law clerk.

De Los Santos described Courtroom 18 as “belying one’s expectations formed by television though it was the smallest in the building.” Though this particular courtroom was the smallest in the building, De Los Santos described it as belying one’s expectations formed by images from television.  The tablets of wood that cover the walls from ceiling to floor and the configuration of fixtures that makes the room imposing, nonetheless. The judge’s table is above any fixture to overlook everything.

The class was able to see how things are run on a daily basis, and how important it is to know the language and procedure. This reiterated the need to obtain the appropriate documents.

“I am generally in admiration of the courtroom, as an institution of the Western Civilization; of civilization and human justice,” Arlen McCluskey said. “I feel proud to be a citizen of a country that guarantees this right to its people.”

Overall, the class agreed that the live courtroom was nothing like what is shown on television. Cynthia Thurlow shared that many of her favorite shows have court scenes—Boston Legal, Ally McBeal and L.A.Law.

“I remember many of those precise and well-orchestrated court scenes,” she said. “But, they did not prepare me to look into the eyes of a defendant, and then hear count after count of charges read for them. (The shows) did not prepare me to witness actual sentencings.”

“I found it interesting that there are so many cases in one day,” Alicia Partridge said. “I guess I am just used to television’s version a courtroom: one big dramatic case. It never occurred to me that these cases go on for long periods of time before a verdict is made.”

Television court scenes now seem antiseptic and theatrical Thurlow explained.

“I was not prepared for the sadness I felt listening to a case involving a family torn apart by drugs and abuse,” Thurlow said. “Unbeknownst to me, the well-dressed gentleman who thanked me for sliding over to make room for him, turned out to be the defendant being sentenced in this case.”

But unlike the case with the “well-dressed gentleman,” in the other cases the defendants we witnessed were in prison clothes, shackles and handcuffs. The two people we saw on trial were wearing very dirty clothes, McCluskey described.

We learned that much of the detainees’ day is spent waiting. They wait downstairs in holding cells until their group is ready to be taken upstairs to other holding cells to wait for their cases to be called.

Later in the tour, we were given a first hand look at the downstairs holding cells This was a shocking and disturbing experience for most of the class.

Photo by Arlen McCluskey, Inside holding cell of first circuit courthouse

“The holding cell was a little eerie,” Erenia Michell said. “Standing inside, just in the middle of the room for 10 or 15 seconds, was enough to get the point.”

McCluskey described the rooms as claustrophobic and very dirty.

“It dawned on me also that when we looked at the empty cells, we couldn’t gather very much about what it would be like to share the cell with other inmates,” McClusky said. “What I’ve seen has reinforced my view that the American criminal justice system is designed to punish and not to rehabilitate. When I think about the hours that people spent in the cold holding cells and the undignified entrances they make into the courtroom, I saw the courtroom in a different light.”

We did meet a member of the court who prefers rehabilitation to punishment; Circuit Court Judge Karen Ahn.

Judge Ahn was once a journalist in Honolulu and later returned to school and graduated with a Masters of Law degree. She gave the class some valuable insight about the media’s role in the courtroom and in regards to law.

“I felt the talk was informative,” said Partridge. “I never thought a journalism major could end up being an honorable judge.”

Ahn explained that our job as a journalist is to take what happens and accurately and professionally report it to the best of our abilities

Photo by Arlen McCluskey, Judge Ahn speaks to the class despite time or length.

“It was really encouraging to hear her say that journalists are accepted and welcomed to exercise our right to free press,” Michell said. “I think it gave us all a lot of encouragement as future professionals in media.”

Guided tours of Honolulu’s First Circuit Court are available through the Judiciary’s Volunteers in Public Service (VIPS) to the Courts program.  At least 30 days advance notice is recommended.  Possible activities include: speaking with a judge or other court personnel, visiting a court in session and visiting a cellblock.  Tour guides are knowledgeable and may discuss levels of courts, physical courtroom arrangement, roles and responsibilities of court officials, and jury selection.

Tours are conducted between the hours of 9 a.m. till noon and 1 p.m. till 4 p.m.  VIPS can be contacted by phone (808) 5394880 or by mail at 417 South King Street #212, Honolulu, HI 96813.