The employees of Manhattan civil court building are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. It astounds me anew every time I go: everyone from the security guard to the clerk on the phone to the people helping me fill out my small claims form to the mediator who told me I should reschedule for a day when I could remember to bring my evidence is helpful, courteous, and good-natured. When I first came to register my case against my former employer, the clerks laughed at my unpreparedness and inability to fill out the form properly, then waved me away and said they’d fix it. I’ve never come across any business or institution that made me feel more welcome. It’s like a bizarro DMV.
This seems to have some affect on the hundreds of people filing into the small claims session. Every single one of them is on or representing a side of an argument that couldn’t be resolved without legal intervention, yet half of them are chatting and smiling, even making last minute deals because none of them really want to sit in the courtroom and be judged by a stranger with a degree in dispassion.
The courtroom is huge. At a rough estimate, the ceiling is 30 feet away, if not more. I’m guessing 100 feet on a side, with 9 rows of what I have to call pews. The light is harsh, ugly, and pervasive. It is truly a mighty box of justice.
The wood paneling behind the judge’s seat proclaims “IN GOD WE TRUST” in what I think is Helvetica at first, but the “R” looks wrong. Since I don’t trust God, this does little to relax me, certainly less than the pint of lager I chugged on my way, though slightly more than the strange blond woman with a giant grin staring at me from two rows up. There are two clocks on the wall, one a minimalist installation, which must have tired of maintaining, since it’s not moving and there’s a fifteen dollar K-Mart clock hanging next to it. The door to the room whines about needing WD-40 about three times a minute as people come and go: quick excited squeaks as it opens, and slow, sad exhalations as it closes, its needs ignored. There’s quiet muttering at about the level of an off-broadway play during a scene change.
The clerk of the court gives his spiel, designed to encourage people to give up on the judge and go to an arbitrator. I have no problem with this, since I’m relying on the defendant to not show up.
The clerk informs us that will call out the names of the parties in each case, and we’re supposed to stand up and state our names. If we want to pass on mediation, we’re suppose to follow our names with “by the court.” As the process commences, the clerk’s deadpan humor against the starkness of the justice box and the nervous deference of everyone in the pews makes for a slow and surreal comedy.
“Howard James, by the court.”
“Sir, please stand up when stating your name.”
“Yes, I, I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay sir, we’ll work on it for next time.”
An old Italian man’s case gets pushed to a later date. He objects with the open mouth and Italian gestures you’d expect from a washed up don in a Scorsese movie. As he attempts to make a scene, the clerk pauses to looks back at him. “Yes sir, I know you feel you’re important, and you’re very important to me too, but not to everyone else in the room. See you in three months.”
He finally calls my name and my former employer’s name. I state my name only, and he directs me to the waiting room. The waiting room is significantly more comfortable, with wide leather chairs and flattering lighting. I’ve barely opened my book when I’m called up to meet a mediator.
The mediator is a cute, friendly Jewish girl who tells me, I’m paraphrasing, that she’s the end of the justice conveyer belt, and her decision can’t be appealed. This sounds better than some of the ends of other conveyor belts of justice, so it’s okay by me. I assumed the case would just be handed to me since my former employer didn’t show up, but it turns out I still have to convince at least one human that I have a case to win. Even as my pipe dreams of bringing random small claims cases to people I’m sure won’t show up fizzle, I’m comforted that nobody else can get away with it either.
I don’t have any proof on me, because the court date snuck up on me and I forgot all emails and pay stubs that made my story worth some printed paper. I ask if my word is worth anything, and she tells me it’s probably not worthless in an existential sense, but it’s not enough for her to make a legal decision and I should get my shit together and try another court date. She also mentions that the printed emails will be enough, and that once a decision is made the city will take care of collecting on my behalf. This makes me feel like a few of my tax dollars are coming back to me in a tangible way.
On my way out, I’m reminded of Searle’s Chinese Box. In debates about the nature of artificial intelligence, John Searle argued that you could put a person who didn’t speak Chinese in a room and give them a bunch of instructions to follow about rearranging symbols. You could then feed Chinese sentences into the box, and the person would simply follow the rules, rearrange some symbols, and deliver some response that made sense, without ever understanding what was being communicated. This was his case2 against the theory of strong AI, which states that everything down to a thermometer has some cognitive capacity.
Injustice and insoluble issues are delivered into the justice box, and out the other end comes justice. The instructions are designed to take the incoming people symbols, with their own black box minds full of justifications and excuses for everything they’ve done, and rearrange them is some way that will allow them to exit the box and carry on. Neither the instructions nor the people comprise justice, at least half of the participants walk out feeling either wronged or guilty, and the instructions demand no sympathy for the feelings or fate of a single person. It is a gland of a culture’s brain, explicitly designed without understanding, that from afar delivers a message of order, even if it plays like macabre comedy from within.