Monday, May 23, 2005


In the last day, I had the occasion to visit a municipal court and the symbolism of the place struck me. It was traditional in design with oak paneling, benches for spectators and an elevated dais for the judge. Attorneys sat in front waiting for their cases to come up. They were the only ones in suits. The rest of the populace was overwhelmingly African-American and modestly dressed -- some in T-shirts, many in jeans. The first thing that struck me was the town involved is only 40 percent African-American. Why weren't there more white faces? No answer for that. The court clerk called for all to rise as the judge entered, and everyone did. A symbol of respect for the law held throughout the room.

The judged himself was a fellow with a white Van Dyke beard and bald head, symbols too of authority, who liked to hear himself talk. He spoke clearly and simply about court procedures and personal rights in a way that even a semi-literate person could understand. It was a credible performance. As he disposed of cases, he asked each person whether the individual understood the violations of the traffic code, whether the person understood the fine, whether the person was pleading guilty and sometimes, an added question or two about the case. Only one individual for whom English was a second language had difficulty understanding his queries. He dismissed her to the laughter of the spectators and noted that the question didn't matter anyway. The care with which he asked each question and rendered his opinion were symbols too of his respect for legal procedure and for rights. I was impressed.

I have never spent much time around courts but they are powerful communications media that, perhaps, should be examined more closely by PR practitioners for what they can teach. It was an interesting experience and an affecting one, but I don't think I will attend again any time soon -- if I can help it.


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