Every day, the roughly 700 courthouses across the United States are home to an enormous variety of legal processes, from small claims to capital crimes. The legal system is the stage on which lives and fortunes are begun and ended, justice is delayed and sometimes served, and the rings of power in the United States are at their most visible.
Despite the public nature of the legal system, it remains largely invisible. Most people don’t keep an eye on the day-to-day goings-on in the courthouses that serve them. So while the public may tune in when a case of police brutality is heard, or the perpetrator of unspeakable horror is sentenced, what goes on behind the front doors of a courthouse and the quality of the justice dispensed generally goes unnoticed.
A team of 12 reporters from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism took a snapshot of the Alameda County Superior Courts over three days in the late fall to get a glimpse of the routine workings of an indispensable system.
From civil cases to punitive justice alternatives to the individuals who staff the courts, this project looks into the often-overlooked world that is the court system.
— Jeremiah O. Rhodes
A day in the courtrooms
- The courthouse coffee cart
- Early morning money miff
- Diversion Courts offer a third option
- Arraignments as the first step – or misstep
- Seeking help in Behavioral Health Court
- A puzzled judge defers ruling
- Settling a debt – or settling a score?
- A gay presence on the bench
- An alternative to punishment
- The mundane work of shaping lives
The courthouse coffee cart
“Happy Friday, Junior!” is how Jawad Kohgdai, or simply “Jay” as his customers call him, greets the clientele at his coffee cart on a rainy morning. Aside from Jay’s cheerful welcome, the Wiley M. Manuel Courthouse is eerily quiet.
“Since the pandemic, business is almost entirely gone,” Kohgdai sighs. “This is my cousin’s coffee cart. He used to have many, five or six, in different courthouses. Now there’s only two, and this one will probably close soon too.”
Because of the lockdowns, most trials at the Oakland courthouse have switched to Zoom. Traffic trials had been a huge and constant presence at the courthouse, and its litigants, the cart’s bread and butter. Nowadays, most of those trials are online, with in-person hearings held only every second Thursday for two hours.
But making money from selling coffee and snacks to litigants, court staff, and sheriffs is not why Kohgdai works the cart.
“My cousin asks me to cover for him occasionally. There’s not much money to be made here, so I come because the staff are my friends. I come to talk to them. During the pandemic, I had too much depression. So now, I come here to chat. I didn’t miss the job, but I missed the people here.”
As another customer walks away after a short yet heartfelt conversation about Kohgdai’s ailing mother (“Your family is in my thoughts and prayers, Jay!”), he tells me that the woman is a judge at the court. He calls her “Judge Susanne.”
Having spent 15 years at the court coffee cart, Kohgdai has seen more than his share of courtroom drama and occasional tragedy.
“One time, a few years ago, a man cut his own throat in the parking lot. He was found guilty at his trial, and during a break he went into the parking lot and killed himself,” Kohgdai said.
However horrifying, life-changing, and traumatic events can be for its employees, the courthouse is just another place where a good cup of coffee and a conversation with a friendly barista with excellent stories makes even a rainy day pass quickly.
“Jay, please don’t close before I get a coffee!” a sheriff’s deputy pleads with Kohgdai as he runs by talking into his radio.
“They’re always so nice inside the court. Why aren’t they always like this?” Kohgdai laughs as he begins to pour coffee into a cup for the officer.
— Alisa Gorokhova
Early morning money miff
In a quiet courtroom on a frigid, wet morning at the Hayward Hall of Justice, Shu-Ming Chuang prepared to fight an appeal of a lawsuit he’d won six months prior.
“This small claims case should be very straightforward, very simple. I don’t know why they can appeal,” Chuang said afterward.
The public seating remained empty apart from a lawyer’s assistant who pulled habitually at pieces of fuzz and pet hair coating the hickory-colored chairs.
Alameda Superior Court Judge Victoria Kolakowski commanded the courtroom. Alongside her, a bailiff sat at a desk that was unadorned compared with the court reporter’s, whose station could’ve been mistaken for the scene of a Pepto Bismol eruption with flowers, ribbons and stuffed animals, all in similar shades of pink, covering it.
Chuang, a 70-year-old Fremont resident with salt-and-pepper hair that fell just over his ears, sat alone at the plaintiff’s table in a raincoat and slacks. To his right sat the appellant, Maniah Bhuptani, in a pewter suit with a light blue shirt, and his lawyer, Emily K. Andrews, in a royal blue outfit with gold buttons, matching her hair.
“Very rarely do I do small claims cases,” said Andrews, who primarily litigates criminal, real estate and family law cases in San Mateo. “So, I’m a little bit out of my element.”
Judge Kolakowski asked Chuang to recap the suit. In a booming voice, he said that in November 2021, he sued the Capistrano Property Owners Association, and their president Bhuptani, for $10,000. Chuang claimed his neighbor had violated the homeowners association (HOA) guidelines by adding a 580-square-foot recreation room without speaking to Chuang or getting HOA approval.
Chuang alleged the addition created a noise nuisance, requiring him to spend $36,000 to replace his windows to reduce the disruption. His suit requested Capistrano compensate him for the monetary damages and 30% of the 30 years’ worth of HOA fees he’d paid, which came to $11,340. Ultimately, Chuang’s suit was capped at the small claims limit of $10,000.
In May, an Alameda Superior Court judge ruled for Chuang, ordering the HOA to pay $10,214.
Now defense attorney Andrews, without disputing Chuang’s claims, said the HOA wasn’t at fault and Chuang should sue the neighbor, who circumvented the HOA and went straight to the city of Fremont for approval. The HOA, he said, knew nothing about the addition until it was finished.
“What else do you want me to know?” Judge Kolakowski repeatedly asked Chuang. She followed up with the same question each time his response didn’t appear to suffice. “What else do you want me to know?”
Without getting an answer, the judge announced the parties would receive her decision in the mail, and the two sides sauntered from the courtroom. Chuang returned to his home in Fremont, and Andrews left to sit on another client’s deposition before preparing for felony and misdemeanor criminal trials the next day.
“[The HOA] are not special. I predict that even a different judge will come to the same conclusion,” Chuang said.
— Albert Gregory
Diversion Court offers a third option
The Diversion Court system offers a way out of the usual choice criminal defendants face between a plea deal or a trial while attempting to address core issues that led to the arrest.
On a weekday afternoon in the misdemeanor Diversion Court at the Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse in Oakland, a scene between a judge, client and public defender played out:
“Do we have a Romanian interpreter?” the judge asked. A tall woman with graying hair approached the podium at the center of the courtroom.
“I want to go over terms with you,” the judge said, pausing for the translation. “Six months, 100 yards away from Macy’s. If there’s not a theft awareness class in Romanian, you can do 100 community service hours,” referring to a course required by the court that outlines underlying reasons why people steal and how to address them.
“I’ve already completed 14 hours,” the client said through the interpreter.
“Congratulations,” said the judge.
The client thanked the judge, interpreter, and public defender and walked out of the room with her family.
Her attorney, Jeff Chorney, is an Alameda County public defender who regularly works with diversion courts.
“If you meet those conditions, you don’t get convicted of anything, your case is dismissed and your record sealed,” Chorney said. “It’s a door number three from either taking a plea deal or going to trial.”
In Alameda, people charged with misdemeanors or certain felonies can petition to be referred to a diversion or collaborative court. The court prescribes a plan that may include counseling, substance abuse treatment, anger management, cultural sensitivity training, theft awareness, or community service, along with other requirements, with the aim of dismissing the case against them and, in some cases, having those records sealed.
“When we use the word ‘diversion’ in criminal court, what we’re using that word for is diverting people, meaning turning people away from the traditional criminal system that has one consequence, your freedom,” Chorney said.
The collaborative system comprises many specialty courts, each with its own eligibility rules and goals.
Like other criminal courts, collaborative courts are overwhelmed. On a recent weekday, 42 cases were heard for misdemeanor diversion court alone. Chorney and Judge Sharon Djemal agreed it was much fewer than normal, which hovers around 100 a day between petitions in the morning and progress reports or dismissals in the afternoon.
“We are completely inundated, overworked, and don’t have the resources to treat people individually, and I don’t think there is anybody in the system that could argue with that,” Chorney said.
“It’s really a nail-biting experience year to year,” said Superior Court Judge Greg Syren, “trying to make sure that we have funding to keep our [collaborative] courts up and running.”
Each hearing took approximately five minutes. Judge Djemal proposed treatment plans, had clients accept the terms, set court dates, adjusted treatment plans or dismissed cases.
Syren is primarily involved with the mental health court. “There’s a nexus between mental illness and the crime that [a person has] committed,” he said. “Those who [receive] treatment are provided medications, access to a psychiatrist, housing, access to substance abuse treatment.”
Ben Woolley is the administration manager at Options Recovery Services, which offers outpatient substance abuse services for Alameda County’s Drug Court.
“The rehabilitative model works,” Woolley said. “Redemption and rehabilitation is a really strong emerging theme throughout our organization.”
Gerald [Jerry] Beat is the intake coordinator at Carnales Unidos Reformando Adictos [CURA.] Once, he was part of a similar program as a parolee.
“I didn’t get clean until I was 43, and I was homeless, living in a tent for four years,” Beat said. “I got picked up on a parole violation, and I had an incredibly great probation parole officer who [treated me like] a drug addict, not a criminal.”
“I think that this court is a step in the right direction,” Chorney said, “and I’d like to see a massive expansion of what we’re doing in here.”
— Kathleen Quinn and Kelsey Oliver
Arraignments as the first step — or misstep
Department 702 at the East County Hall of Justice in Dublin mostly handles those currently housed at the Santa Rita County Jail. However, some people in the courtroom were out on bail and came before the judge to enter their pleas.
People who enter the court with their attorneys or public defenders communicate with the judge through a bulletproof window with a few circular openings.
This is the first step before trial.
On this particular day, the judge’s docket included over 80 people who would enter pleas. What seemed to be a large number of cases was just another day in arraignment court.
Entering the courtroom in the morning was a tall man wearing a gray suit. He approached the bench in front of the judge very calmly. He was representing the defendant, who was not present.
A person who does not appear on an assigned court date could have a bench warrant placed against them, which could mean jail time for failure to appear.
Within minutes, another figure appeared through a monitor, a prosecutor. She looked somewhat agitated as she breathed heavily, rolled her eyes, and told the judge that the defendant’s attorney had not met or discussed the arrangements before that day. It’s customary for the defense and prosecution to meet before arraignment to file documents and discuss potential plea deals to avoid going to trial.
The attorney confirmed to the judge that he had not yet discussed the case with the prosecution.
The judge sighed for a moment and looked disappointed.
“Off the record, you both have been here before and know that the court documents must be filed before the day of arraignment,” the judge said.
The judge offered the attorneys 10 minutes to confer.
The next case began.
— Adam Solorzano
Seeking help in Behavioral Health Court
Incarcerated people shuffled in and out of Department 104 at Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse in Oakland, their jumpsuit colors telling onlookers that they’ve come from across the county for today’s Behavioral Health Court, a diversion program that lets defendants who participate for 12 to 18 months leave jail early — or avoid prison or probation — and clear their records.
In one of the maroon padded chairs in the courtroom’s gallery, a 22-year-old man had fallen asleep in the front row. His lawyer walked in and woke him up to come and talk in the hallway. He followed the lawyer, stumbling and half-awake.
When his case was called, his mother was with them in the gallery seats.
Judge Gregory Syren read through the material the man’s case manager had sent for the day’s progress report.
Syren told the man the behavior described in this week’s report seemed to indicate he had stopped taking his medications, one of the few requirements for staying in the program.
“I’m not kidding,” Syren said. The program, the judge said, is what was keeping him from facing five years in San Quentin State Prison.
The man was facing felony charges for a January 2020 robbery and grand theft, but if he completes the Behavioral Health Court program, he will walk away with a clean record.
The next defendant, a man named Ivan, appeared in court via video chat.
The judge reviewed Ivan’s most recent progress report and told him it was positive.
“I’m really proud of you,” Syren said, scheduling to check up with Ivan again in a few weeks.
Syren talked with a new referral for Behavioral Health Court — an inmate in a brown and white striped jumpsuit — about the steps he would have to take before moving on to the next defendant.
A woman named Rochelle took the podium.
She flapped her hands behind the podium as she told Syren that she was enrolled in an art class that was coming to a close and planned to enroll in another.
She told the judge about her garden.
Syren recalled the woman he had met earlier, who said little during their encounters. “You’re so much better now,” he said.
— Grace Marion
A judge defers ruling
“So I’m watching the Great British Baking Show the other night … ,” Judge Morris Jacobson said to a lawyer standing in front of the bench. He paused as if to ask if she had seen it. She shook her head. Laughter and murmurs came from a cluster of lawyers sitting on the left side of the room, which smelled of cigarettes and damp fabric from the downpour outside.
Judge Jacobson’s eyes glanced at the clock that read 9:30. “All right, let me call it,” he said. The Rene C. Davidson courtroom in Oakland was in session.
The first defendant, accompanied by a police officer, was a 25-year-old man dressed in a blue uniform, which generally indicates a low-risk person charged with a misdemeanor.
“How are you doing today?” the judge asked.
“Blessed,” the defendant responded.
The judge reviewed his background: two prior arrests related to drugs and no history of violence.
A lawyer sat next to the defendant and began to explain his actions. He never threatened to shoot any of the witnesses, she said. No one in the vicinity was afraid for their lives; he has one daughter at home and three children in Ohio — he provides financial support to all of them. The defendant also runs his own business, an organization that helps the homeless.
Judge Jacobson interrupted. “I first have to understand the allegations, then understand if there was a threat to public safety.”
The prosecutor presented a new set of facts.
On the night of the arrest, the defendant was asked to leave an Oakland bar, Hello Stranger (“That’s a good name for a bar,” said Jacobson, chuckling.) due to intoxication. A security guard escorted him out, and he allegedly said, “I’m going to come back and smack y’all.” Outside the bar, he brandished a gun at a food vendor on the street. The police were called, and he was arrested.
The defense added a detail: the defendant never said, “I’m going to shoot someone.”
The judge paused. “This can come out one way or another, or somewhere in between, and I simply cannot tell.”
The defense and the prosecution painted entirely different images of the man sitting before the judge. One was of a hard-working father who spends his life helping homeless people; he made a mistake one night by getting too drunk and taking out a gun, and he would never have caused harm. Another version of the same man portrayed him as a threat to society.
“I want to give it a chance to play out,” the judge said. “That leaves [him] in custody for a minute.”
A new hearing date was set with the hope that the matter could be resolved before the holidays.
“If I’m not sure, I delay the decision,” the judge said, looking straight at the defendant. The young man nodded and, without saying a word, was escorted back to his jail cell to await his next hearing.
— Eliana Blum
Settling a debt — or settling a score?
The last case Judge Richard Seabolt was to hear remotely that day was DeBarr v. Hardwick in the Administrative Building courtroom in Oakland. It concerned two people who, according to filings, had dated for more than 10 years.
According to the initial trial brief, Sondra DeBarr loaned James Hardwick over $70,000 in 2011 and 2012. Hardwick repaid roughly $5,670 of the loan, and DeBarr “never made any demands for payment until just prior to filing this action in 2020,” Richard van’t Rood, Hardwick’s attorney, wrote.
The defense says Hardwick had helped DeBarr in an unrelated probate case, and “in consideration of everything Hardwick did for plaintiff, the parties agreed to ‘call it even’ after plaintiff won the probate case.” However, there was no documentation of that agreement.
The defense also alleges that DeBarr only asked for money because the personal relationship ended badly.
That seemed to be the critical point of contention in the trial. “The part that troubles me most,” Judge Seabolt said, “is that the plaintiff made no effort to collect the notes until shortly before the action was filed in October 2020.”
“Nothing in [the] commercial code requires a demand be made before a lawsuit is filed,” Jon R. Vaught, DeBarr’s lawyer, quickly responded.
According to Vaught, the letter demanding payment was sent on Sept. 3, 2020 — a month before the action was filed — although he had not submitted a copy of that payment demand to the court.
After extensive back and forth between the lawyers, in which the judge stated he found Hardwick’s previous testimony more credible than DeBarr’s even though he found DeBarr’s evidence stronger, the judge decided not to rule on the case that day. Instead, he would allow a week for Vaught to submit the demand that his client sent to Hardwick and for van’t Rood to respond to it.
“I would like to wrap this up before the change of assignment next week,” the judge said. “But that’s not going to happen.”
— Jeremiah O. Rhodes
A gay presence on the bench
“It’s a very gay court,” said Alameda County Superior Court Judge Jenna Whitman. She was referring to the many LGBTQ+ people who work in the courts as she prepared for a day that had become unusually hectic due to last-minute scheduling changes. Whitman, a lesbian, has been handling civil cases at the administration building in Oakland since 2018.
In the Rene C. Davidson Courthouse, the pandemic is still apparent: facial coverings are required, the third floor sits empty and dimly lit, and Whitman’s courtroom is occupied only by the court attendant, research attorney and clerk.
Thursday held the law and motion calendar for pretrial motions and special requests, and Whitman had about 10 items to attend to. One involved an attorney who was given permission to stop representing a client in a case against Amazon for reasons only Whitman could hear about due to the confidentiality of client discussions.
In another case, a plaintiff alleged wrongful termination and disability discrimination by her former employer.
“I’ve had a tremendously good experience,” Whitman said about her time as an LGBTQ judge. She could recall only one comment from an older white man who said she looked like a “Northern California lawyer.” Otherwise, she pays little attention to the occasional misgendered honorifics like “sir” from litigants or lawyers.
“I was a tomboy as a kid. People used to call me a boy for having short hair and wearing boys’ clothes,” said Whitman, 49. “I don’t think people are being disrespectful; most people are making a mistake — I make mistakes.”
An issue that frequently arises in court is the use of gendered honorifics, like Mr. and Mrs., and general assumptions about people’s genders. Whitman believes the courts in Alameda are doing better in using gender-inclusive language.
“[The courts] try to treat everyone the same and extend the same level of respect to them,” she said.
Whitman became a lawyer for the same reason others do: to make a difference. After law school at Georgetown, she returned to the Bay Area and worked at a large firm representing big companies that she didn’t necessarily agree with. Whitman then became a research attorney for Alameda County and later the First District Court of Appeal. She never saw herself as a judge; instead, she grew fond of advocating for people and finding the answers to problems. She volunteered for the temporary judge program working on small cases, and in 2018 was elected as a Superior Court judge.
“Lawyers work for their clients and have to put their feelings aside. [As a judge], I get to be that neutral person,” Whitman said. “It’s hard, never-ending work, but it’s fun and good work.”
Whitman believes Alameda County is far more progressive in its representation of LGBTQ people than many other districts, but says there are still large ethnic groups and gender-diverse people who are underrepresented in the justice system.
“In the legal setting, there can be a stigma [for being LGBTQ]. Some firms may not be welcoming regarding legal marriage or the ability to adopt kids,” she said. “If you see someone who looks like you in court, you might have more faith in that institution. Representation doesn’t solve the problem, but it can help.”
— Melanie Velasquez
An alternative to punishment
It’s common to hear in the Behavioral Health Court at Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse that most criminal activity is due to untreated mental illness. Superior Court Judge Greg Syren, 63, who previously worked as a public defender for 27 years, said he wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere around 70% to 80% of people who come through the criminal justice system suffer from mental illness or substance abuse disorders.
On a recent morning, the defendants expressed gratitude for the court and Judge Syren’s support. He took on a fatherly role, offering one defendant, in particular, encouragement and tough love. He said he was worried the defendant was not receiving the supportive services he needed. Syren said the defendant must commit to a mental health treatment plan as soon as possible. He worried that the defendant had been in custody for too long.
“I am so proud of you,” Judge Syren said to every defendant who showed they had been following the court requirements: taking their medication, attending hearings, and remaining in contact with their case manager.
But he was not afraid to provide a reality check to defendants who were not meeting the court’s requirements.
To one who had not been taking prescribed medications or showing up for hearings: “Either you get back on the horse, or we will send you back to criminal court. You are looking at up to five years in state prison. You need to start taking your medication and meeting with your case manager. I hope you are hearing me, or you will be dealing with a bus trip to San Quentin.”
“Let’s get this ship pointed in the right direction,” he said.
While this court might not work for everyone, for some, it might be just what they need to hold themselves accountable to reach a base level of stability.
One individual who benefitted from the court was a man who got word that day that he exceeded all of the court’s requirements and was graduating. This defendant had been in Behavioral Health Court for about 18 months for committing a series of felonies.
Syren told the defendant through a Zoom call: “I was concerned that you would not make it through, and here you are. I am speechless. A lot of people choose jail time, but you chose to work on your root issues. You gave yourself one more shot.”
After a final “I’m so proud of you,” Judge Syren terminated his pending cases.
“Having been in the criminal justice system now for almost 40 years, the way we did criminal justice was terrible,” Syren said after hearing almost 160 cases that day.
“What I participated in, that revolving door, that prison pipeline that existed through the late ’80s and the ’90s, was not a reflection of the justice system that I want to be a part of. This is my response to that.”
— Danica Simonet
The mundane work of shaping lives
On a rainy morning, the people incarcerated in the adjoining lockup of the East County Hall of Justice in Dublin were brought into the courtroom, shackled and dressed in striped jumpsuits. The members of the court conducted themselves with an unsettling sense of mundanity. Each case observed went through the same motions. Charges were read, ranging from murder to petty theft, and justice was dispensed. Some inmates would spend much of their lives in the 2 square miles that the campus covers. “I can’t wait for the weekend to finally come,” remarked one law enforcement officer as the court broke for lunch at noon. “It’s been a long week.”
This courtroom had seen some of the worst of humanity come through its hallways, and Judge Jason Clay pored over pages and pages of documentation of the charges. The inefficiencies of the system were on display, too, as one man who was legally required to have a hearing two days after his arrest came before the judge after his 12th day in custody— an imperfect machine, moving from one docket to the next.
One defendant was recently released from prison and now had to explain a violent outburst fueled by alcohol. He stood before the judge with papers reflecting his attendance at multiple Alcoholic Anonymous meetings over the past two months. “I’m really trying to get better. I’ve shown up twice in the same day sometimes. I can fix this.” It is a stirring sight to watch people at possibly the lowest points in their lives make strong commitments to a better future. The justice system at play was imperfect and messy, but it was hard to deny the power of watching a quiet courtroom shape the lives of the people who walk into their halls.
— Varun Srikanth