Public/Private: Washington County, OR
RENO, NV – 6/24/18
As I go along this journey, there are many people and things to which I owe thanks: the trusty family Subaru, for getting me where I need to go; my parents, for letting me use said Subaru; the people of Oregon, for not having sales tax; and above all, the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. After all, the right to a public trial, and the resultant commitment from U.S. courts that proceedings involving adults should almost always be public, guarantee the fact that everyone and anyone – from the loved ones of those involved to press camera crews to college student pursuing their summer journalism projects – can view what goes on inside our courthouses.
One major note I took away from Washington County, Oregon’s courthouse (and there are many, but I have to keep something in hand for my final piece) is the degree to which the courthouse is a public space. In short, courthouses (at least, this courthouse) are not designed for privacy. On the one hand, this is terrific – everything is open, just as our legal system intends. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, so the saying goes. Conversely, much of what goes on in courthouses IS private, both in a legal and vernacular sense.
One example: conversations between attorneys and clients, privileged by law, often have to be held in the open. As I observed in one instance, when a defendant walks into court directly from the county jail, they might have to consult with their lawyer in the courtroom. All others step out of the courtroom, and the attorney can converse with their client. Yet there is no designated interview space where this might happen; the courthouse is designed with the concept of “in open court,” an oft-used phrase, in mind. Similar situations arose again and again. For example, an attorney preparing for a divorce hearing would be conferring with his client by a vending machine in the court lobby. (I did not record/transcribe nor will I report in any more detail on these privileged attorney-client interactions.)
Even beyond these legal bounds, many conversations in a courthouse concern very private matters: marriage and divorce, loved ones potentially going to prison, and many others. In one instance, two attorneys explained the implications of their client’s sentence to his family in a crowded hallway next to sheriff’s deputies waiting to testify in another case and jurors waiting to enter a courtroom for yet a different case. Yet those were really the only available spaces, so it seemed, to have the conversations easily in the building. Adequate private spaces for private meetings, in a place dedicated to making everything public, were in short supply; this is a potential issue for future consideration in courthouse design, I might humbly submit.
This problem is by no means limited to Hillsboro, Oregon; indeed, one of the major issues with the new court building in the Bronx, right in good old New York City, is a lack of adequate interview rooms for attorneys and their clients. It was particularly striking, though, to experience this first-hand, to feel how one becomes a witness, just by being present, to the sensitive and personal struggles of another. At the same time, the fact that I could just walk in and observe a trial seemed profoundly democratic, even braggadocious – we are so confident in our system of justice that we will submit it to the public eye (at least in the case of observing trials). I’m not quite sure yet what I make of this, but it’s a reflexive note I’ll keep in mind for the rest of my work: what we can view publicly in courtrooms are often someone’s most private matters.