Arraignment Day: The Most Wonderful Day of the Year

I don’t do as much criminal defense work as I used to, but I do take a case from time to time when the need arises and the client pays. Such an occasion happened recently, so yesterday I traveled to my old mountain home in order to take part in the spectacle that is “Arraignment Day” for the Third Judicial District.

I love Arraignment Day. It’s a sort of family reunion between members of the bar, it’s a chance to get in front of a judge, and the crowd is always entertaining. It also feels like a bit of an exclusive club; the criminal docket is so crowded at times that visitors or family members there in support of the accused will not be allowed access. The attorneys, though? We get in the door pretty quickly. We’re there on business, and the deputies working security know they won’t have issues with us.

Immediately, I’m waved through security after entering the courthouse doors. I go to the Clerk’s desk and pick up a Waiver of Arraignment form, as I know my client’s going to be indicted. That’s the interesting thing about working in a small town–you’ll find out information in the most interesting ways. If I were to try a criminal case in my current city of Knoxville, I suspect I might get a very different result with a phone call to the D.A.’s office than when I call the Third District’s office asking whether my client had been indicted during the last grand jury session. One call is likely to land me a “You’ll have to wait until the Arraignment.” The other? “Let me check. Oh yes, they’ve been indicted. Here’s the case number, and here’s the D.A. who will handle the matter. How’s the kid doing?” I suspect it’s the difference in cultivating relationships with one office, and a lack of opportunities in another more than the “adversarial” nature of the offices, but that’s what happens when you try to target one area of practice for your work. Sometimes, in small areas like my old mountain home, the local paper lists the names of the indicted. I suppose such practices help with circulation.

As attorneys and clients start to make their way into the room, the buzz starts to grow audible. I see the Judge’s secretary and say hello. I make my rounds with the Probation officers, and I give a cursory nod to the District Attorneys as they come through the doors. My favorite people, though, are my colleagues from law school who immediately greet me and chat, catching up on lost time. We all begin discussing the need for a vacation, and travel plans that will soon occur. Eventually, one of my friends says the following:

“I think I’m going to get to the podium and tell the judge I need withdrawals on all my cases because I’m quitting the business. Then when the time is right, I’m going to say “Happy Early April Fool’s!”

“Could you give me some sort of signal before you pull that stunt?” I ask. “I don’t have a good viral video yet on my YouTube page and this might set me over the top.”

He laughs, and notes that he doesn’t want “Attorney gets arrested by eight deputies” on World Star Hip Hop.

The room gets quiet very quickly when the deputy acting as Bailiff barks out “All Rise! Court is now in session. The Honorable Judge (x) Presiding. Please give your full attention to the Court.” There used to be a time when the Bailiff said “God Save the United States, the State of Tennessee, and this Honorable Court,” but times have changed. I suspect this is a move towards a more “progressive” Court, but I always liked the old touch. It just seemed to add to the decorum of the day.

As soon as the Judge gives his preliminary instructions, he asks for the attorneys with retained clients or previously appointed clients to line up so they can “get those matters out of the way.” It’s a good method of handling the system–the docket yesterday was a twenty-five page monstrosity. Those of us who’ve practiced before this judge know to get to the court early, find our clients on the docket, and mark the page, the case number, and count how many spaces from the top or bottom the client in question is on the docket. It’s a lot easier to go “Your Honor, this is page twenty, docket number (X), third from the bottom, State vs. (Insert Citizen Accused)” than to say “My next client is (Insert name).” The judge then announces whether the client is indicted or not indicted. If the client hasn’t been indicted, the next arraignment date is announced and the client is ordered to return that day, remembering to abide by all the terms of his or her bond and to not get arrested in the interim. If there is an indictment, the judge asks for a waiver, and the Indictment(s) get handed to the attorney. The judge then sets a trial date, and asks the client to turn the Pre-Sentencing Report into their attorney immediately.

I have one case, and I know it’s an indictment, so the announcement doesn’t come as a surprise. I know the dates the judge asks for are days I’m free, so I schedule the trial quickly. I’ve already got the Waiver of Arraignment form filled out, so I hand it to the Bailiff as he hands me copies of the indictment forms. The judge asks me if I’m still in Knoxville, and requests a couple of my business cards so his office can update my contact information. I respond in the affirmative, and I leave two cards with the Clerk before I leave the courtroom. The judge also announces to my client that they must be present on “Announcement Day”–the date when the Judge learns whether there will be a plea deal or whether this matter will go to trial. My client and I indicate our understanding, and then leave the courtroom after being excused.

I take my client into the hall, and read the indictment, as I am bound to do. I give my client a copy of the Pre-Sentencing Report Questionnaire, and ask if we will fill it out now, or whether the client will fill it out and return it to me. The client opts for the latter, and I hand over the copy. We review some discovery in an unrelated matter, and with that, my day is finished in my quiet mountain home.

I return to the city that afternoon, bringing my wife lunch. We sit and talk about the day. I’m officially in the “adrenaline dump” mode that follows Arraignment Day, but I’ve made progress on a case or two and I’m happy with it. I got to see some good people, catch up with friends and colleagues in the Bar, and let people know that I’m still kicking, regardless of life’s circumstances. Truly a good day indeed.

That’s all for today. Maybe tomorrow I’ll try for something more incendiary.

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