NEW YORK – Jenny Baumann’s itinerary for her first trip to New York City: Rockefeller Center. The Empire State Building. Central Park. Night court.
In a city synonymous with theaters and nightlife, the 26-year-old from Munich was perched on a scarred wooden bench in a utilitarian room in lower Manhattan on a recent evening, straining to decode – sometimes even to hear – the methodical hubbub of arraignments in one of the nation’s busiest courts.
“It’s very interesting to hear real cases,” Baumann said as she and a friend watched a judge decide whether to set bail for people facing charges ranging from choking a girlfriend to stealing a six-pack of beer. Each case was handled in a matter of minutes amid a hive of clerks shuffling paperwork, police taking retinal scans, defendants and lawyers conferring in a confessional-sized glass booth and court officers occasionally bellowing, “Quiet, please!”
It’s one of New York’s more peculiar and paradoxical tourist traditions, a place visitors extol on travel websites while many residents hope never to wind up there. To travelers, it’s gritty entertainment, hard-knocks education or at least a chance to experience real-life law and order on a New York scale.
Dozens of jurisdictions nationwide hold some court sessions at night, but Manhattan Criminal Court occupies a unique spot in the public’s imagination, thanks to TV’s “Law & Order” and “Night Court,” not to mention arraignments of real-life notables ranging from rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs to French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
The court handles more than 100,000 arrests a year, averaging about 70 to 90 cases during the 5 p.m.-1 a.m. night session – and that doesn’t count people who got summonses, let alone New York City’s four other boroughs.
Established in 1907, Manhattan night court once attracted such spectators as John D. Rockefeller and the then-Duke of Manchester. More recently, it’s been noted in tour books, including once in the off-the-beaten-path-prizing Lonely Planet guide.
“This is something that feels really underground and unique,” said Regis St. Louis, author of the current Lonely Planet New York book.
Night court is so popular that veteran clerk Robert Smith has become an impromptu tour guide for school groups from as far away as Denmark, judges from Japan and individual sightseers he spots in the audience. “I try to make it informative” by explaining the process, he says.
Much about the experience can be foreign even to those who aren’t foreigners. Some arraignments gallop by in a blur of jargon, and certain cases are only-in-New-York by nature.
“To people who live in a little community in Nebraska, what’s fare-beating?” asked Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice and former Criminal Court Supervising Judge Charles Solomon, referring to the practice of not paying for rides on public transportation. “It’s eye-opening.”
Lorraine Cheyne was surprised to see handcuffed people sitting near her in the court audience – that wouldn’t happen at home in Ranfurly, New Zealand. The retired property manager was struck by the Manhattan court’s unceremonious bustle, chatter and “very casual atmosphere all round” during her late-afternoon visit last fall.
If visitors find allure in night court, insiders understand why. “It is a ‘just-off-Broadway show’ with a cast of thousands, ever-changing story lines … real drama, as well as occasional comic relief,” said Edward McCarthy, who oversees the Legal Aid Society’s defense work there.
But if it can be entertaining to watch, it’s fraught and serious work, notes acting State Supreme Court Justice Melissa Jackson, the Criminal Court’s supervising judge from 2008 through 2012.
“From the judge’s perspective and all of the attorneys’ who work so hard, there’s nothing amusing about it,” she said. “And the stakes are very high.”
Those stakes are measurable on the faces of audience members hoping to bail out loved ones or discovering they can’t. Some spectators develop mixed feelings about being there.
“Had I come to learn something about the American legal system or to watch a wrestling match?” Michael Coto wrote on Triphoney, his New York travel-guide site, after a 2011 visit. But he found a powerful answer as he reflected on what he was watching.
“I started thinking about how this person’s rights are protected and what protects somebody in that position, the fact that you can be in there and not have to fend for yourself,” he recalled by phone recently.
Some court tourists are legal workers or law students seeking to educate themselves about New York’s justice system, or parents who want to teach their children about it.
Adam Jory Waxman and his wife took their 16-year-old son there last month while visiting from the Atlanta area, hoping it would be a lesson in choices and consequences. And it was.
“He saw that people got themselves in trouble and that there wasn’t anything they could do about it until a judge made a decision,” Waxman said.
After two hours in Manhattan night court, Baumann came away determined to observe a court back in Germany. As she left, Holly Young was in the midst of her own first visit to the Manhattan court, waiting for a friend’s arraignment.
Go there for fun? She shook her head.
“That’s not something I would want to do,” she said. “I don’t think this is cool at all.”