August 05, 2009

Courtroom Dramaturgy

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

I just finished a week of jury duty. In my experience, lawyers on either side of a case don’t typically like sociologists on a jury but in this case, I was chosen. I was glad to do my civic duty of serving on a jury, and I was fascinated by the rituals and rigid structure of the clip_image003events.

When jurors walk into the building, they’re welcomed by metal detectors and uniformed sheriffs.. No knitting needles, knives, or handcuffs are allowed.

Signs instruct visitors to remove sunglasses and not to chew gum, eat, or drink. You must wear a Juror badge everywhere you go, even during breaks, so that those involved in the case will know not to talk around you.

In the assembly room before we were selected, we were advised to turn off our cell phones and to use them only in the hallway, if at all. We were given the “handbook” (a flyer) with an outline of what to expect and what to wear. (I actually neglected to read it until the third day of my service).

The courtroom itself is a highly structured space, intended and effective in regulating the behavior of those in it. The judge’s seating area in the center-back of the room is elevated above all others; we couldn’t see what the desk looks like up there. The witness stand and jury box, on one side of the judge, allow for a clear view of each other, with the separation of the low wall enclosing the jury box. The witness stand is elevated as are the second tier of the jury seats, though neither are elevated as high as the judge is.

The court reporter sits in front of the judge, and in front of that are the two tables for the prosecution and defense, evenly spaced in front of the judge. Over on the other side of the judge, to counterbalance the witness stand, is the clerk’s area, probably the largest and busiest desk in the room. On the other side of the room, by the clip_image003[5]defense table, is the bailiff’s table, complete with a phone that rings surprisingly often. And, of course, between this entire area and the door through which we enter are the rows of seats for onlookers.

During some off-the-record moments during the trial, I also noticed that the lights in the ceiling were not evenly spaced as they tend to be in most rooms. More lights were over the clerk’s desk than over the jury box and over the court reporter, defense, and prosecution areas while very few were in the onlooker’s gallery.

The subtle differences in lighting, coupled with the elevation changes in seating reinforce the patterns of attention in the room. Most of the action occurs from the defense and prosecution tables as they take their turns getting up to speak. The elevation of the witness stand commands your attention when someone is sitting there. And, of course, the judge, elevated the most, commands the most attention even if there is no movement or verbal statements coming from that judge.

All of this physical structure sets the foundation for the social structure and rituals that reinforce the serious nature of the proceedings.

The judge is referred to as ”the court”: he or she is not representing a person, they are representing the constitution and legal system. The lawyers must always request to approach the witness rather than walk up to them without the court’s permission.

As the jury enters and leaves the room, the attorneys stand.

Much of what you see in television shows and movies does reflect the structure and behaviors of a courtroom, although real life moves much more slowly and clip_image003[7]without a clear story arc. Rarely are there exciting moments of suspense. It is actually sometimes a struggle to stay awake and focused on the proceedings, especially if you aren’t interested in the legal terms and processes.

However, the ritualism of behaviors reinforced the serious nature of the setting. The presence of the defendant also served to remind us that these issues related to someone’s life and were not some abstract issue.

When the judge, lawyers, and court reported moved outside the back doors for a sidebar, people stayed in their seats yet some talked quietly, drank their water, or looked over their reading materials.

All of this reminded me of Erving Goffman front stage/back stage conceptualization of performance. Front and back stage performances take place in different locations. The courtroom as the front stage is obvious and the back stage could be the area behind where sidebars take place. However, I got the impression that the actual front stage is wherever the judge was – since the courtroom became a break room once the judge had exited. I assume the court reporter kept recording events and statements and the lawyers kept their performance going as they discussed things with the judge. We maintained our performance as jurors when court was in session – when the judge was in the room.

Thus when court was out of session – when the judge exited the room – we were allowed to break our performance albeit not completely. We did chat but in hushed tones; we did drink our water although quickly and quietly.

Because the bailiff and defendant also stayed in the room, they continued their performance as the bailiff kept eyes on the defendant and the defendant kept clip_image003[9]still in the seat.

I spent a total of five days in this courtroom yet it wasn’t until the fourth afternoon, when we went to the jury room to deliberate, that we got to see that back area. It was indeed a hallway, with the jury room almost directly behind the courtroom door. The hallway extended the length of the building and, I imagine, held the office where the sidebars take place and three other jury rooms and office for the other courtrooms on that floor. We only got to clip_image003[11]traverse the distance from the courtroom door to the juror’s room door and back again.

Once in the jury room, we were left alone, although there was a phone to contact the bailiff, our one connection with the court. We kept our performance going as we deliberated and discussed, for the first time, our reactions and opinions about the case and the evidence presented. We read the legal instructions and voted our opinions on the counts before us.

Our jury room front stage performance remained intact until we called the bailiff to communicate that we had concluded our deliberations and reached unanimous decisions on all counts in the case. While we were waiting to be called back into court, we relaxed a bit and chatted more informally about the case and other matters.

Thus with both the courtroom and jury room, the concepts of front stage and back stage can be applied to different locations, but also to the same space when the roles and purposes change. Once the formal process is concluded, what was a performance of front stage behavior can quickly become a variant of back stage behavior without any spatial movement at all.


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I liked the sentence: "All of this physical structure sets the foundation for the social structure" - this is very true, not only for court but for other places as well such as church, for example, or a classroom. Thanks for a detailed and interesting description.

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