By Kayla Hampton | kayla.m.hampton@wmich.edu

A faded, well-worn, black composition notebook rests on his lap. A blue BIC pen scarred with teeth marks is poised over the page. Josh Baker, an 18-year-old student at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, prepares to record the numerous observations he will make concerning the arraignment he is about to witnesses during his visit to the Kalamazoo County Courthouse on Feb. 26.

Baker, who hopes to study political science and eventually practice law, first came to the courthouse, which is located at 227 W. Michigan Ave.,  in October of 2012.

“I had an assignment for a class where I was supposed to come down to the courthouse and observe things for an hour or so and then write a response about my experiences,” Baker said. “I thought it was just going to be a boring assignment, but it was actually really interesting and I’ve come back several times since.”

Volunteers in Courtrooms

Baker is one of a handful of regular guests who visit the courthouse not because they are part of a case, but simply to watch legal proceedings unfold. Recently, courthouses across the country have been implementing plans to make their facilities more convenient and accessible to visitors. Kalamazoo has joined this movement by requesting volunteers on the county’s government website. The South Florida Sun Sentinel reports that the number of courthouse volunteers is on the rise. These individuals assist courtroom observers as well as people who have to report to the courthouse for legal reasons by providing directions, helping people find forms, and putting people at ease.

The Courthouse Access Advisory Committee, which helps courthouses across the country improve their accessibility and become more visitor-friendly, reported that American courthouses collectively ranked higher in terms of guidance for guests in 2012 than ever before.

“It’s a little intimidating the first time you come to the courthouse because of the metal detectors and the strict-looking guards,” Baker said. “Everyone’s actually really welcoming and helpful. You can learn a lot.”

As he sits on the polished, pew-like bench in Courtroom B and listens to a man plead guilty to driving under the influence, Baker’s scribbling can be faintly heard throughout the high-ceilinged room.

“I don’t think that I was significantly impaired, but that’s neither here nor there,” the animated defendant says. Baker smirks.

“It’s always more fun when [the defendants] show their personality,” he whispers.

Courtroom Observations as Education

Baker said that he feels his courtroom observations are a crucial part of his education and, while they are not required homework assignments, they are just as important.

“I’ve learned about the ways different cases are presented, how juries are selected and how uncomfortable the seats are. Every time I come to court, I learn something new,” Baker said. “I’m preparing for my future and some things are better experienced in person instead of through a textbook. This is one of them.”

Baker said one does not have to be interested in the judicial system or considering a career in law to enjoy visiting a courthouse. He encourages all citizens to sit in on a court proceeding at least once.

“It’s really easy to come watch stuff unfold,” Baker said. “The first time I went to the courthouse, I didn’t know what to expect. Now I feel really comfortable, like I belong there. That’s good because I plan to spend a lot of my life in courtrooms!”

Courtroom Observations a Entertainment

For Charles Cliff and his good friend David Green, visiting the Kalamazoo County Courthouse has become a hobby in recent years.

Cliff, a 68-year-old retired salesman, and Green, a 71-year-old retired factory worker, both of Kalamazoo, are seated beneath a large bulletin board covered in lists of the week’s circuit court cases. The two men are taking a break from the courtroom to talk and enjoy each other’s company before the final day of the Robert Medema homicide trial begins.

A tall, silver-haired man, Cliff is wearing khaki pants, a tan corduroy blazer, and brown dress shoes. Up close, one can see the Harley Davidson logo in small print on the left side of his shirt.

“I had to serve jury duty many years ago and, unlike most people, I enjoyed it,” Cliff said. “After I retired,  I decided it might be worthwhile to stop by the courthouse from time to time to watch the cases.”

While he enjoyed having some time to himself at first, Cliff said he began to want some company, so he invited Green, his longtime friend, to come along.

“I knew that Charles had been coming here for a few years, so I wasn’t surprised when he invited me to come with him,” Green said. “I didn’t think that I would enjoy it as much as he does, but I was wrong. Now we come every Tuesday.”

Green, a short man who is dressed in a plaid flannel shirt and jeans, said that Cliff was able to show him around the courthouse and help him get accustomed to the layout of the building.

“When I first came here, I didn’t know where anything was or how to find cases that I could sit in on,” Cliff said. “You just have to ask. The people who work here are happy to point you in the right direction or answer questions. Now I can help David when he needs it.”

The courthouse employees are eager to help those that are visiting the building as well as those that have an appointment or are there for legal reasons, Cliff said.

“They seem pleased that I am exercising my right to be here and watch what happens in the courtroom. Not many people do that,” Cliff said.

However, more people should, Green said.

“It’s much more interesting than court TV. Those shows are phony, but this is the real deal,” Green said.

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