Thursday, March 17, 2011

Back In Court

Yesterday I dropped in to the main courthouse in Sofia to watch how the wheels of justice turn in these parts.  Sometimes when I’m traveling in far away lands, I get weirdly nostalgic over what I’m trained to do for a living.  I’ll happen upon signs on buildings with names followed by titles like “Advocat” or “Abogado” and think:  I’m an Advocat!  I’m an Abogada!  Soon I’m finding my way into a foreign courthouse.

In fact I’ve stopped by quite a few courthouses during the course of my travels.  In Barrow—a small town high up in Alaska’s North Slope, within the Arctic circle—I once slipped into a courtroom and watched a local resident get his probation revoked.  Public intoxication, I think was the latest charge.  Later I crossed paths with the judge at a convenience store across the road and we had an interesting chat.  I found that exciting, because I’m nerdy that way.  I once clerked for a judge!  (Actually, it was two.)

The next year I observed some judicial proceedings surrounding the Rwandan genocide, first at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, conducted in Arusha, Tanzania, and later in Rwanda itself.  In both places, fellow advocates took me under their wings—a U.N. appointed-defense attorney from Canada in the first instance, and a local Rwandan prosecutor in the second.  For me, these opportunities were like striking gold.

The site of the ICTR in
Arusha, Tanzania
And then there was Madrid.  Things weren’t so easy there.  I turned up in the best outfit I could fish out of my backpack, hoping to look as if I belonged, and strutted through the front door with the confidence of Gloria Allred.  But for some reason, the phalanx of security blocking the metal detector wasn’t buying it.  They spotted turista right away.  “No turistas,” one of them said, brusquely.

It was hot in Madrid that day and it had taken me close to an hour to find the court.  I wasn’t giving up that easily.  I looked the guard straight in the eye, and in my best Spanish, said, “Yo soy abogada de Estados de Unidos.”  And that was all it took.  The guards stood down and shuffled me in like I had just told them I was the Queen.  I spent the rest of the afternoon watching an interesting trial involving a couple caught running drugs from Chile to Spain.  And I learned that male judges in Spain wear black robes with intricate cream-colored lace at the base of their sleeves.  Who knew.

But here in Bulgaria it would be a different story, were I to be called upon to explain myself.  I’ve been here for two more than two weeks now, and haven’t been able to master one Bulgarian word.  I keep trying to say “Hi,” which is Zdrasti, but it keeps coming out sounding like Drats!

The courthouse in Sofia.
So my initial strategy at the courthouse was to follow close behind a man wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, and to pretend that I was with him.  It worked all the way through the conveyor belt and metal detector.  I was almost home free when a female security officer put her hand up and said something to me in Bulgarian.  Crap!  I said what I always say:  “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”  Hearing my English, she said, simply, “Passport.”  Turns out she just wanted to see some ID.  I handed my passport over, and seconds later I was loose in the courthouse.

The courthouse in Sofia is, in a word, grand.  Huge vaulted ceilings, ornate friezes, imposing coats of arms, majestic marble-and-wood staircases.  I walked around just marveling for a time, and then went in search of some action.  It was easy.  I just followed a woman who looked stressed out and in a rush.  (I can always recognize my kind.)  Soon I was standing in a long hallway containing many courtroom doors, and crowds of people milling outside them. 

And this is interesting.  Next to each courtroom door was a huge electronic board with what looked to be detailed, up-to-the-minute information on that afternoon’s hearing schedule.  Bulgaria’s courts are high tech apparently.  In L.A. you’re lucky to find a piece of paper hanging up with your case name on it.

I followed the herd into one of the courtrooms with an afternoon calendar scheduled.  I took a seat in the third row and sat watching the lawyers perusing their files, awaiting their turn.  I don’t know why, but I felt nervous for them.  Maybe because I know how hard it is to keep all those facts and case names straight.

Soon three women in black robes entered the courtroom, and we were told to rise.  I’m not sure why there were three judges there initially, but after a couple cases were finished, two of them retreated to the back, never to be seen again.  That left one to handle the remainder of the hearing calendar.

I sat for a while watching some sort of dispute in which witnesses were called and examined by both sets of lawyers and the judge.  I couldn’t understand one word, so I didn’t know what it was about.  It was hard to concentrate, too, with the court reporter banging on her keyboard and chomping on her gum.  Apparently you’re allowed to chew gum in Bulgarian courtrooms.  At least the court reporter in this one was.

I took in the other differences.  Here, the lawyers stood at opposing, wooden podiums (podia?) at the same time, only a few feet before the judge’s bench.  The witness stood between the lawyers in front of his own wooden structure, and would just turn his head from side-to-side while he was questioned.  No witness raised a right hand before offering testimony, so perhaps the Bulgarians don’t swear dramatically to tell the whole truth, and nothing but, the way we do in America. 

And judging from one reaction in the courtroom, it sounded as if one of the witnesses was, in fact, not telling the truth.  At one point the witness’s testimony drew an audible sigh from the gallery.  I turned to see an animated man shaking his head as if to say, “He’s lying, your Honor!”

I followed the parties out after the hearing and approached three young people who had been sitting in my row, figuring they might know English.  (They did.)  I asked if they could tell me what the hearing was about.  It was a civil property dispute, they explained, and I learned that the three are law students in Sofia, and work in the office of one of the lawyers participating in the hearing that day.  

That lawyer also happened to be the father of one of the students.  And a famous one, I was told.  After a few moments, the famous lawyer walked over and introduced himself to me.  We talked for a few minutes, during which time I told him that I, too, am a lawyer; from America.  The group had some more work to do, and we were about to part ways when the famous one invited me to stop by his law office sometime during my visit to Sofia. 

“Of course, I would love to,” I said, taking his card.  Because I’m an advocate too!  And sometimes I just miss hanging out with the club.