Thursday, June 12, 2003
‘Night Court, USA’: More Fiction Than Reality
By ROGER M. GRACE
“Night Court, USA,” a show that was syndicated in the late 1950s and early ’60s, was not like other “reality” courtroom shows. There was actually very little reality to it. Here’s the format:
The clerk reads the charges and asks the defendant how he or she pleads. Usually, it’s “guilty”—but with an explanation, the plea often being entered by the deputy public defender. The lawyer then generally retreats to the background while his client, standing in the “well,” addresses the court. There’s no prosecutor; there are no private attorneys. The judge, played by actor Jay Jostyn, hears unsworn testimony and imposes a sentence. Or not. If the crime doesn’t seem all that serious—such as a woman who ranted at the screen in a theater during the showing of a Humphrey Bogart flick because the girl friend Bogie abused kept coming back for more—the jurist will simply dismiss the charge.
Actor Jay Jostyn
If the defendant pleads “not guilty,” that means probably there will be a trial, but the judge listens to what the defendant wants to say. Unless inclined to dispose of the matter with leniency, he orders the accused misdemeanant into custody to await his or her day in court.
Among those arraigned on one of the episodes is one Martha Wilton. Feigning sweetness, she tells the judge that she is “not guilty” and that “[I]t was just a silly mistake.”
Sheepish and haltering, she proclaims embarassment over the incident, and the deputy public defender (played by Barney Biro) comes forth to assure her: “Miss Wilton, suppose you tell his honor the story just as you told it to me and I’m sure he won’t keep you much longer.” He returns to his seat.
The defendant explains that she long ago resolved herself to the fact that she was not attractive. She had “never had a real date”—that is, not until “George” came along.
“Ever since George asked me to marry him last night,” she tells the judge, sobbing, “I’ve just been going around in a circle.”
That afternoon, George, unable to find a parking space, dropped her off at a department store to purchase her trousseau, expecting to join her after coming upon a place to leave his vehicle. She tried on garments and, with the store about to close, threw her coat over those garments and headed out to find George to get the money to pay for them. But, alas, the store detective stopped her, and she was arrested.
“Martha, that was a beautiful story,” the judge comments, to which she responds, humbly, “Thank you, your honor.”
The judge continues:
“Anyone passing judgment on you would have to be hard of heart not to let you walk out of here.”
She is about to be released, it appears.
To the contrary, the judge goes on to tell Wilton: “You still tell it beautifully.” He reflects that about 10 or 12 years earlier, he heard her relate the same tale.
“It moved me then,” he remarks. “That’s why I let you tell it again.”
Sternly, he declares:
“I’m going to hold you over for trial since you’ve pled not guilty. You’ll be served with a subpoena….You’ll be held until a subpoena is issued and you’ve had your hearing. All right, deputy, take her along.”
The defendant is led off to the “tank.”
In other cases (among those contained on .RAM files obtainable on the web):
•A man with a heavy eastern European accent is charged with violating Penal Code §899, “public speaking without a license.” He was caught, the judge recites, making “comments about the president of the United States” and other officials that “bordered on sedition.” The defendant, a zealot, proclaims that “America is being sucked into a sewer”and blames the president for national secrets being leaked to the enemy. His honor tells him: “It appears obvious you’re in the employ of a subversive organization or you need a psychiatrist.” The judge proclaims: “You’re committed to the city hospital for examination”and advises: “Should you be found normal—an outside possibility—you’ll be returned to this court.”
•A man is charged with violation of “Code §3215, destroying property.” He had found a pornographic magazine in the possession of his 10-year-old son and, enraged, proceeded to wreck the cigar store where it was sold. The judge sentences the man to make restitution to the shopkeeper and requires him to join the PTA in order to participate in concerted action against sales of pornographic matter to minors and to “report back to this court on the progress you make regarding this situation.”
Do you suppose these episodes will be shown at the Judges’ College in Berkeley as training films?
Next week, the first of some columns on “People’s Court.”
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