At the end of my recent brief trip to the USA (wonderful and stimulating alumni dinners in both New York and Boston; and a fascinating afternoon discussing the “meaning of success” with Global Cambridge), I was fortunate to be able to spend an afternoon in the court house in Boston (proper title: the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse – a curious American habit: it is inconceivable in the UK that a court house would be named after even a much loved local politician!).

The building is stunning: brick is a fun metaphor, since the law is also built brick by brick, case by case. But most exciting are the inspirational stone carvings throughout the building. The building resonates with quotations from the giants of US law: “Men and women were created equal; they are both moral and accountable beings, and whatever is right for man to do, is right for woman” (Sarah M. Grimke, 1837); “The law is the witness and external deposit of our mortal life. Its history is the history of the moral development of the race” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1897); “The responsibility of those who exercise power in a democratic government is not to reflect inflamed public feeling but to help form its understanding” (Felix Frankfurter, 1958), and so on.

From the rhetorical to the individual bricks. I sat in the overflow court for the high profile Boston Marathon murder trial of Dzhokhar “Johar” Tsarnaev. But was soon diverted into a host of other, more ‘ordinary’, cases.

I had been told that Judge Young was a master of his craft. Sadly, his first case that I went to watch (listen to?) ‘went down’. But his second hearing was a pre-trial hearing (in the absence of the defendant) in which the defence lawyer sought to speak to the judge in chambers. The judge stated that he didn’t believe in chambers (i.e. he wanted justice to be done in public) but he was prepared to come to the bar of the court. I have been in many courts in many countries, but I have never seen the judge come down into the body of the court and stand in a huddle with the lawyers, having a whispered conversation…. Much better than secret justice, chambers justice, but definitely intriguing. I had an excellent conversation with the defence lawyer at the end of the hearing, which included a discussion of jury tactics (so different in the US).

I also sat in on a sentencing hearing (a woman pleading guilty to tax fraud) and was amazed to hear the extent to which the guidelines predominate: a lengthy discussion about whether it was offence level 33 or 30, whether she should get 2 or 3 points for acceptance of responsibility, and so on. I am nervous that guidelines in our country may be starting to fetter unduly the discretion of the trial judge. But we haven’t seen anything yet!

Then there was a bail hearing (a detention hearing, I think in the US; an interesting reversal). It was clear to me that this defendant was very unlikely to get bail: but the judge was charming and kindly as she remanded him in custody. Most surprising to me in that hearing was the court layout: at the end, the defendant was handcuffed in court and then led to the front of the court and out of a door adjacent to the judge’s bench. We would not have handcuffed him in court, but then he would have been in a much worse position in the court: in a glass box at the back of the room, and then led down to the cells from the back of the box. Much better that this ‘dangerous’ man was sitting in the middle of the court, right next to his lawyer throughout the hearing.

A useful reminder that none of us should accept that the way we do justice is the right or the only way. There are many ways to do justice. And my alarm at the state of American prisons and jails (see the Vera Institute’s latest offering on the misuse of jails) should not extend to their court houses: the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse is impressive. “The dignity and stability of Government in all its branches, the morals of the people, and every blessing of society depend upon an upright and skillful administration of justice” (John Adams, 1776).

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.

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