For this assignment, I was supposed to drive down to the Black Hawk county courthouse, observe and take notes on a hearing or some other form of court proceedings, and then turn my experience into a story. That didn’t happen. This assignment seemed pretty straightforward. All I needed to do was find a time where I could go watch literally anything at the courthouse. As a government entity, the courthouse is open to the public, so getting in isn’t a problem, so what happened?
As it turns out, the Black Hawk county courthouse is only open from 9AM to 4:30PM Monday through Friday. Now, it’s no secret that government buildings are often only open at very inconvenient times, but currently I am a full time student taking fifteen credit hours a week, in addition to which I have two jobs. Because of all of these things, my schedule is currently totally blacked out during all of the courthouse’s operating hours Monday through Thursday. This leaves one day a week where I was able to actually go to the courthouse without having to skip class or take time off work. This does not leave much flexibility for things to come up during this time, which of course they did. In addition, my only available day was Friday, which happens to be the day where the least happens in terms of hearings or other proceedings.
I ended up having to take time off of work to have time to go observe court proceedings. On the day I had set aside to do this, I called ahead to the courthouse to ask about the schedule for that particular day. I explained that I was a student and that I was only there to observe. They were very helpful and gave me a detailed schedule. I decided I would go to a civil hearing taking place at 1:30 in the afternoon. I made the 15 minute drive to downtown waterloo and got to the courthouse about 15 minutes before the hearing was set to start. When I was in mock trial in middle school and high school, the judges were so reliably late to trial that it was expected for all proceedings to start between 15 and 30 minutes late, but I didn’t want to assume that was the case in the real world as well, though I suspected the same thing might be true.
Following the schedule posted on the wall at the entrance, I found the room where the hearing was supposed to take place. There were two young attorneys there when I walked in, who asked me if I had a child custody case. I explained why I was there and they returned to their work. After about five minutes they left the room, I assumed to do final preparations for the hearing. I then proceeded to sit alone in that courtroom for over an hour, waiting for the start of a trial that would never come. I waited for as long as I had time to, with each minute passing by wondering if I should just move to a different courtroom to observe, or stick with the one I had just in case something happened. The schedule had seemed so full when I looked at it, but most of the courtrooms I had passed on my way to the one I chose looked just as empty as mine would turn out to be.
So, at the end of the day, I had taken time off of work, giving up the money I would have made during those hours, in order to have the time to utilize a resource that is supposedly free and open to every citizen, only to come away with no additional knowledge or experience of the judicial system. But access to this system does not seem to be open to everyone.
Of course the operating hours of any and every government agency are inherently inconvenient to anyone with a full time job. They are usually restricted to normal business hours (or often fewer hours than that) to keep operating costs lower than if they were open for extended, and thus more convenient, hours. However, to me there is something about keeping the courthouse open longer that seems worth the extra money, and I’m speaking as a taxpayer.
The judicial system is the branch of government that is possibly the most complex and simultaneously the most crucial for citizens to understand. They need to understand their rights and how those rights play out in court proceedings. Anyone can be brought to trial for anything from a speeding ticket to first degree murder, and the best way for a citizen to know how to navigate the complex world of lawyers, judges, trials, and hearings is to witness it first hand. Organizations like The Innocence Project exist for the purpose of working to free the large amount of people who are wrongly convicted for a number of reasons including those who did not fully know their rights, or were poorly represented and did not understand that because of a lack of knowledge of the judicial system.
A courthouse that isn’t even open for full regular business operating hours is not accessible to the public. Many cannot afford to simply take time off of work. Living paycheck to paycheck is a reality for a large amount of people, and these are the people who are easily taken advantage of by a system that does not work for them. Perhaps most importantly, an educated citizenry is what keeps these systems in check. If everyone had a basic knowledge base on how to challenge a speeding ticket or any other fine they believe to be unjust, law enforcement would have a constant check not from government but from the citizenry itself. This could easily be expanded to other areas of law enforcement and justice.
The government is supposed to exist and operate in service of the people, but if it restricts access to only those fortunate enough to have a job with flexible hours or whose pay will not be affected by needing to take time off, then that government is not truly working for all people, but in fact a select few. If I, a person with a part time job and the ability to set aside time, however a small amount of time, was unable to observe any actual court proceedings on a normal weekday afternoon, something to me seems very wrong.