I'm not sure how much money was spent on the renovations to the Elm Street courthouse in New Haven, but it wasn't enough. Sure, the courthouse looks pretty, although there are those embarrassing holes drilled in the stairs approaching the front door where contractors miscalculated where to sink the railings. Athena's got holes in her robe.
But inside, where it matters, plenty was left undone.
The courthouse is home to Geographical Area 23, the criminal court serving New Haven, East Haven and a few other surrounding towns. It's an accused's first stop in the criminal justice system.
As such, there is a lockup in the basement, a place where men and women are held before their first appearance before a judge. It's also the place where men and women who cannot make bond are kept each and every time they are brought to court. Lawyers meet there with their clients each and every court appearance.
The lockup is medieval in form.
Oh, the New Haven lockup was touched up in recent years. There's a fresh coat of paint, and morale among the judicial marshals seems high. It's a pleasure, of sorts, to go into the bowels of the courthouse to meet a client.
But what's lacking is any privacy. You meet with your clients as they stand assembled with others behind a wire-mesh screen. There are no chairs on which a client can sit. And there is no partition separating the client from the man standing to his left or right.
I don't understand how a small fortune can be spent to make a building look pretty to passing motorists, while making absolutely no provision for privileged communications between lawyers and clients.
Things happen fast in the GA courts. Clients are whisked before a judge to be told new court dates. Lawyers scurry down to the holding cell to discuss recent development in their cases. Often, the courthouse meetings are the only meetings between lawyers and clients as a case progresses.
Should all of these conversations take place within earshot of the other inmates, and lawyers, trying to do business in the room? Of course not.
The Judicial Branch takes an unrealistic view of client communication. Not many years ago, the bean counters in robes thought Solon himself had dreamed up the idea of having prisoners beamed into court via closed-circuit television for some appearances. Eureka! It would save money, transportation costs!
When confronted with the fact the courthouse time was often valuable time a lawyer got to spend with a client, the response was simple: Lawyers should visit the prisoners where they are confined.
Sometimes that is the sensible solution. But there aren't all that many facilities housing pretrial detainees in the southern part of the state. Not all prisoners are held in Bridgeport or New Haven. Often pretrial detainees are sent far from home. It makes no economic sense to require a lawyer to travel an hour, wait for another half an hour to see someone, and then drive back home for another hour if all that is needed is a 10-minute conversation.
Lawyers need the ability to communicate with their clients in the courthouses where business gets done.
The holding cells in New Haven's Elm Street courthouse need work. The defendants should be given chairs. There should be privacy for lawyer and client as they discuss justice's work. It can be done without spending a fortune.
It makes no sense to create a pretty-looking building that fails to live up to the image it seeks to project to the community at large. If these are truly to be regarded as august halls of justice, something needs to be done about the sausage factory in the basement.
Or don't we care about what the world at large does not get to see?