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The Courthouse Report: Department 2 Corridor

Sarah Peyton |
November 24, 2015 | 6:43 p.m. PST


The Los Angeles Courthouse in Downtown. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Los Angeles Courthouse in Downtown. (Wikimedia Commons)
Have you ever wondered what's it like on a "typical" day in the Department 2 corridor of the Stanley Mosk Courthouse?

Well, in the courthouse, you can take an elevator or the escalators. I highly recommend the escalators hidden around the corner. Go through security at the entrance on Hill, turn right like you’re going to the bathrooms, and the escalators will be tucked discreetly on your left. This is probably not a secret. But many wait for elevators that are packed, and on escalators it’s the same energy, less time, same sedentary lifestyle choices. I’m sure there are stairs. I don’t know where they are. 

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The second floor of Mosk is really depressing. If you grab the escalators from the Hill St entrance and make your way right, you immediately start moving through family law territory. I don’t think anyone would choose to hang around family law hearings. 

As soon as you walk through the invisible wall, around room 205, you can feel the heartbreak of families falling apart. Parents are worried about losing their children and children fear losing access to their parents. Once lovers and visionary partners, making sense of a fucked-up world with the support and strength of each other, able to grip life as a team, successful in human interdependency, couples now visibly distrust each other. They melt in isolation, gripping doorknobs and the backs of chairs to keep it together, facing aloneness, loneliness, abandonment and brokenness. 

You can see it on the faces of people in 205 meeting with their lawyers. Everyone hunches over the tables, hands clasped together, while their arms and elbows stretch out in front of them, propping them up. The skin sags on their faces, defeat and exhaustion emanating out of their bodies, like rotten acrid gas. Everyone exumes loss. There is a white sheet of paper taped up to the wall that says “Family Law DSO — Daily Settlement Officer’s sign-in sheet”. It’s still morning and three women have signed their names and their case numbers for meetings in room 205.

I droop on a stone bench lining the corridor of Department 2. A casually dressed young dad is reading the LA Times to his son, who almost can’t be bothered, and instead pays attention to a few words and slides all over his dad’s lap, legs, and eventually the floor. The floors look fairly clean, otherwise this kid would be a dust mop, pushing his body around with his tiny dorky kid sneakers. Two ladies chat on a bench across the hallway. I can’t make out what they’re saying because the kid is in the middle of a monologue that includes the words “blah” and “bah”. The women both push up their glasses without pausing their medium frequency conversation. Whatever it’s about, it’s light, and both faces have the slight bit of animation people have when in total agreement with one another. 

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Lawyers walk by in clickety clack shoes — especially the women — smacking the tiles with their heels and toes. Some people slug through in what is probably (regrettably) their best clothes. Class becomes more apparent when everyone is dressed in their “best” — there are a lot of Target shoes and plastic molded soles slipping on the smooth floor. Some looks seem inappropriate for a conservative venue. In other words, my parents would have a shit fit. Men in baggy pants and sloppy, stained, untucked shirts. Women in short cocktail dresses, adding a cardigan perhaps to neutralize the sexiness of their dress. 

Young white men walk confidently as if striding toward ambition. Older men slouch slightly forward and drag worn leather briefcases on wheels. An older woman walks briskly past me in a smart suit, a janitor saunters by. 

Consonants of conversations echo and bounce on the all tile floors and walls. “Ha-haha-ha- YOU - FLAH - Ah - If - Hey - Re - Wah.”

Another woman on the other side of the father-son duo has a full bag of groceries and other items spread out all over her bench. A jacket is strewn, a cloth bag is open, she’s eating a banana. Not only has she been here for so long that she’s very much unpacked, but she knew she would be here for a while and packed accordingly. 

A young woman — but older than me — hands me a flyer for the cafeteria in the courthouse. How absurd. It’s called Panorama Cafe and the flyer advertises that “Hablamos Espanol”. There’s a blue star on the corner of the handout boasting “Best View of All Downtown Los Angeles.” 

I’m thinking about the cafeteria when an obese woman with a necklace badge appears at my right hand side. She’s not looking at me though, but off down the hall. “If you’ll just come this way with me…” and ushers a woman into a door not numbered. It sounds incredibly ominous and both women are regularly dressed but downtrodden. I try to follow as unobviously as possible. They disappear behind the door before I can peek through, plated with a large permanent sign that says “Restricted Area, No Public Access, Court Identification Required At All Times.” And then the same thing in Spanish. And then just for good measure and to reach the idiots, one final sign at the bottom








I back away and disappear into the bathroom like I was looking for relief the whole time. When my self-consciousness fades I re-emerge into the corridor and plop down close to the two women, still chatting, still wearing glasses, still understanding each other. I learn the group of people I’ve been perping on are a three-generational family. Son, father, mother, grandparents and an advocate of sorts. Plus a newborn. Which strikes me because, up until now, no conversation had crossed past each individual bench. 

The brisk woman in the smart suit passes me twice more, going into Department 2 and coming out. I make my way down to the court doors. 

Today Department 2 is holding family law emergency cases. Previously moot court sessions had been scheduled, the kids now running amuck or cramming last minute. Cases from rooms 81 and 65 were rerouted, two major shit rivers dumping into one room, with the Honorable Maren E Nelson presiding. The call sheet was long. Five dissolutions of marriage, one nullity, three paternity, insert joke about recipe for disaster here. 

I meet a lovely woman, not called Martha, but Martha will do. She’s an LAUSD principal and is here to support her boyfriend, who I eventually learn is in what my mom would call a knock-down-drag-out-fight with his ex-spouse over custody issues of their son. Or, as Martha refers to it: “They’re middle-eastern, so they’re very passionate.” Martha is latina, and I don’t know if this is how she describes all middle-eastern people or how she has comes to terms with her boyfriend’s behavior. 

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I’m thinking about going inside but I stick with Martha. We’re talking about how her boyfriend has, according to her, spent every cent to stay close to his kid. She brings up the fact that there are no sliding scale or pro bono lawyers for fathers seeking support in custody battles only women. I’m scanning all the printed material posted around the court doors to find out who these people are, but all three cases involving paternity matters on the line up sheet start with “Name Withheld”. Later I searched through the records database with all case numbers in hand but nothing, apparently, has been put on the books yet. 

I behold such passion when the hearing is over. Martha turns when her boyfriend, an older middle-eastern man in plain western clothes (not a cowboy reference, but slacks and a button down shirt), comes through the door and noiselessly motions for her to come inside. They disappear. The doors fling open again and a middle-eastern woman in a traditional middle-eastern dress comes out with a fairly noisy entourage of three people. 

I’m kicking myself because I can’t figure out the names of these people and this woman is SO ANGRY that I just want to be able to name her and understand the anger inside her. Her dress moves in spasms as her arms dart in different directions, motioning towards nothing but gesturing in generic sign language I AM SO ANGRY. The varying force of words coming out of her mouth alone illustrate her anger. She spits, gurgles, heaves, gulps, her head bobbing in tandem with the jagged movements of her limbs. 

Three people faced her, the info was looking like an advocate, a lawyer and a random. Apparently the father won what he was after. Visitation. The exact complications got hashed and rehashed between lawyer, advocate and mother, the random having slunked away (how random of him.) I knew from Martha that what was at stake was her boyfriend’s visitation rights to his son being revoked while his passport was expired. But this hallway conversation made my brain explode. The father didn’t have an Egyptian passport or an American passport, but soon he would and he was also in possession of the child’s passport. The mom’s worst fear was her ex-spouse kidnapping their son. My son, she said repeatedly. She spoke of being the loyal one and now she was being punished. A few other phrases intimated that before this, the marriage dissolved because he was unfaithful. 

While the rate of divorce has recently been picked apart in the New York Times, Huffington Post, and centers such as the Institute for Family Studies, the rates are still high, with the National Center for Health Statistics reporting 3.6 per 1000 population. Dissolved marriages often have children, which need to be split like the financial assets of a marriage are split. But children often end up with the mother, as they can’t be divided like a dollar. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, of the estimated 14.4 million parents living with 23.4 million children under 21 years of age while the other parent lived somewhere else, only about 18.3 percent of custodial parents were fathers. 

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The divisiveness of divorce and custody is all over Department 2 corridor. The mother’s lawyer, a short asian woman in a black and white suit, speaks low and urgently, purposefully outlining the mother’s options. They move away from me, but I can still hear them, and the mother’s options are to red-flag her son’s passport should it get checked off to go out of the country. Then she can report her husband for abducting their child. 

It’s not over. The lawyer is pro-bono. And the hearing is over, the case, it seems, is over. But the mom isn’t ready, she’s not done with the justice system. So when the lawyer asks her to sign papers that I’m guessing are to prove the deed is done, the work executed, the case over, the mom won’t do it. The lawyer, who has been empathetic to the mother’s worries, gets ice in her voice and drops an octave. 

“There’s no more hearing, your case is done.”

“It’s not done,” the mother argues vehemently.

“You told me specifically you would sign it. I will file a motion of court to be relieved of counsel.”

“Then file the motion.”

The advocate jumps in and the lawyer and advocate have a go at each other. Apparently it’s really important for the mother to “sign-off” on these papers. The lawyer needs the paperwork for her job, and really, the mom needs the lawyer to not file a motion of court to be relieved of counsel. Sounds like it could backfire and look really bad for the mom. The lawyer reminds her that FOUR LAWYERS have been working on this case. 

“There’s no more hearing, your case is done.”

The mom signs, slumps, and carries this force of energy through the hall. The advocate follows. Whether the mom’s anxieties are warranted or not, what does it feel like to live in certain fear that your child will be abducted by someone who has custody rights? I’m looking at a bulletin board with a flyer on it that advertises a Family Law Program For Young Parents. Room 233. Bring your case number and a pen. You have to be 24 or younger but maybe they should extend the program age cutoff. Another flyer says “Our Children First: Mandatory Mediation Orientation.” Pretty ironic. 

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The rest of the corridor feels similar. Department 4, across the hall, has a similar line-up of cases. Three dissolutions, two paternity, four freak-outs, five despairs, one system. (See what I did there.) Ex parte hearings listed on sheets with a lot of “Name Withheld”. 

The corridor consists of rooms 209-223, with two restricted access rooms and one employee door. I dog around someone looking official and see the restricted access doors open to more corridors of doors, hidden in the walls of the hallways. Few people are smiling. Everyone here seems anonymous except to their own private party. Which makes it look like people have secret friends here. Or are moving isolated parts seeking enclaves of respite.  At least the lighting is decent. Four large double-pane glass emergency doors at the end of the Department 2 corridor allow light in, which counter-balances the halogen tubes reflected in the shiny floors and walls. 

I’m done. I leave the corridor past the three-generational family still waiting — for what? I jump on the escalator down. My brain shuts off because I’m depressed and I stop to take a quick piss because I don’t want to be more irritated in the car. A Latina mom and her daughter are singing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in the bathroom. I can’t see them but their accents are heavy. It’s not Christmas time yet but the sentiment, and the pissing, are a relief. 

Reach Contributor Sarah Peyton here



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