The Shadow of No Smile and Reconsidering the Courtroom

Divorce Court Needs a Makeover

I’ve exhausted myself at work, home and here this week. But one thing struck me today, so I will note it and then take a couple days off from everything. My ex-wife and I each had court today and our son was out of camp recuperating from an ear infection. He tagged along with me while his mom covered her case and then stayed with her while I dealt with mine. He remarked separately to each of us: “I can see why you’re tired and stressed a lot, no one smiles here. It is sad.”

He is a very insightful kid. Kids are often that way. He summed up a lot in those words. He spent about 90 minutes in the domestic relations hallway of one of the busiest courthouses in the country. His experience was a fairly non-stressful one. He got to meet judges and pose for pictures with one and get candy from another. A deputy sheriff gave him a Junior Sheriff badge and he was not treated like a litigant, but like the son of two regulars at the courthouse. Kind of a Junior VIP experience. But it left him sad. For others. For the men and women and kids he saw there. “No one smiles here.”

Of course, divorce is not slapstick and I don’t expect to see chuckling and guffawing along the halls. But it does tell us something worth considering. When I go to court, I do so as a lawyer. I don’t have to go through security. I can take almost whatever I want into the courthouse. I am greeted with smiles and nods and people ask how our son is doing. I schmooze and kibbitz with sheriffs, clerks, judges and other lawyers. WE laugh and smile a fair bit. We are at work. And I only had to cross the street at Clark and Randolph to get there.

For litigants, they may have come from across Cook County. In traffic or on a train. They are likely missing work. They must remove their belts and wait in a line. They then ride up cramped elevators and are deposited into massive hallways in the spare, steel and glass edifice that is the Richard J. Daley Center. The litigants don’t know the judges, clerks and sheriffs. They don’t get or give many smiles. They are also there on matters pertaining to their own lives.

It must be a horribly alienating experience. They then wait. For a long time. For their case to be called. And then there are maybe a few minutes at the bench. So much for so little.

I don’t know what we could or should do to make that experience better, but I think we should try. I am not an architect or planner – but I think we should make the experience more humane. Perhaps there could be a real cafeteria/food court. Maybe there should be several private waiting rooms with comfortable chairs, TVs and magazines (a la the doctor). Or maybe people should not have to go to Court and we can better use technology for remote appearances.

Of course these cosmetic changes would not be a panacea. But they could help perhaps. And maybe beyond that even, we should reconsider whether most divorce cases even belong in courtrooms. Instead of making litigants come to divorce judges, why don’t we create Family Dispute Centers dispersed throughout the county. These would be architecturally warm places, with thoughtful design, with child care and comfort. There would be no benches and gavels and robes. It would have several meeting rooms where people sit down together around one table. 

Perhaps these rooms would even have sofas. Lawyers would not wear suits. The waiting rooms could have good music. Beverages would be served. Every room would have technology to permit remote appearances. The judges would come to the people they serve. We would treat the divorce like the thing it is instead of the thing it is not. We would view it as a family matter. A primarily emotional, psychological and fraught process. We would not shoehorn the divorce into the mold of the criminal case or the personal injury matter.

Now, a lot of these features are present in alternative dispute resolution and that is a great thing. But litigation is not going anywhere anytime soon. In the mean time, maybe we can at least think mindfully and creatively about how to effect things at the margins. Now, I know this county (Cook) and state (Illinois) are broke. I know we have bigger issues and I know that none of this is practical or feasible. It is a pipe dream and runs against my anti-utopian predisposition. But it was nice to spend a few minutes thinking about it and considering how, if at all, we can make the places our clients must go a little less sad.

And actually, maybe I am a little less jaundiced and curmudgeonly than I like to think that I am. Maybe working all day in a place where “no one smiles” hardens or closes you in ways you don’t always realize. I am glad our son got to see where I work, all things considered. And I am grateful that he shared his perspective with me and with his mom. Kids do “say the darnedest things.” And it is wise to give them a fair consideration. Enjoy your weekend. Later.

Originally published at www.exesandallies.com

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