Second in a series of investigative reports by Christine Louise
Beems, editor emeritus gozarks.com, chronicling the process of
interdiction, adjudication and dijudication as it exists in our
drug-war-torn society today.
The docket for Monday, May 7, 2007, was not an anomaly in the courtroom of the Honorable Michael A. Maggio. As a judge of the Arkansas 20th Judicial Circuit, the number of cases to routinely come before his bench was staggering. Sometimes 80 or 90 each day, with about 5% being Ďnewí cases and the remaining 95% compiled of ongoing civil and criminal matters pending resolution.
Common citizens, many dressed in blue-jeans, filled the hard oak pew-like benches of the public gallery at the Van Buren County Courthouse. Handcrafted of native rock, the masonry structure was built in 1934 by untrained laborers employed by the WPA and stands proudly at the intersection of Main Street and Griggs; the focal point of Courthouse Square, in the midst of the homespun and hand-hewn City of Clinton.
Inmates garbed in prison stripes and chaperoned by uniformed armed guards sat on stiff-backed chairs in the jury box of the second-floor courtroom. A dozen court officials Ė attorneys, recorders and clerks -- attired in business suits and stylish fashions, mingled in the courtroom proper, shuffling papers and exchanging quiet discourse.
Among this fray, Michael C. Kelley Ė the case in point of this war-on-drugs series -- appeared for a second time before Judge Maggioís bench. At Kelleyís first appearance (April 10, 2007), roughly twenty-five cases passed before Maggioís gavel in the two hours preceding Kelleyís arraignment. Most of these cases, like Kelleyís, were not trials or hearings but procedural matters: continuances, orders for discovery, null-process requests, the entering of pleas or the setting of hearing and trial dates for alleged criminal offenses and marital, family or civil disputes.
Charged with growing marijuana and ancillary Ďenhancementsí (ie: charges in addition to the primary allegation which resulted in an arrest), Kelley plead not guilty on all counts.
"Mr. Kelley," Judge Maggio had addressed the defendant. "The court will hear from you again on May 7. If you have obtained legal representation to appear on your behalf by that date, you need not appear. If you have not obtained council then you must appear in person and explain why. Your pre-trial hearing is set for July 10 and your trial date is August 6. As you have posted your own bond, the court finds that you are not indigent and a Public Defender will not be appointed at this time."
Kelley (pictured at left), a 62-year-old Vietnam Vet, newly retired Social Security beneficiary and part-time musician, relocated to Fairfield Bay in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains during October of 1998 at the behest of his aging and recently bereaved father who was by then 91.
"Mom fell off a cliff, walking the dog," Kelley recounted. "It hit the old man pretty hard. And it was tough, financially." Kelley worked steadily as a dishwasher, earning about $7000 per year, and his dad drew a small Social Security pension. "But pop and I had a good life right up until he passed on to glory in October of 2005."
Like so many of the poverty-line-poor interdicted on allegations of drug-law violation, Kelley used his credit cards to post the $5000 bond requisite of his $50,000 bail. Hiring a private attorney came to the tune of $7500, which was added to the credit card debt. "I have good credit," Kelley, asserted. "It comes with paying your bills. That's the American way, isn't it?"
Maggio, age 46, holds a B.A. in Political Science/History from Millsaps College (1983) and a Juris Doctor from the University of Mississippi (1986-1988) and UALR (1989). Concurrent with a decade in private practice (1990-2000), Maggio proceeded through the ranks of Deputy Prosecutor, Small Claims Judge and Special Municipal Judge, having now served as Circuit Judge since January of 2001.
"I came late to the law," Judge Maggio, a man of soft-spoken character, talked candidly in chambers about his role as a judge in the Arkansas legal system. "Some judges and lawyers grew up, when they were 5 or 6 years old, wanting to be a lawyer. I have a younger brother who wanted to be a lawyer from the time he was 7. And he is. But that was not my first choice," he recounted amiably.
"My first love was sports," Maggio continued. "I was on the path to be a high school basketball coach. I played through high school and college, and thatís what I wanted to do. Iíd taken all my courses and done everything I was supposed to do, but it just wasnít meant to be. God moved me over here, and thatís fine. Iím happy here, and I get a chance to do my job here and hopefully make decent decisions that have a positive impact on people."
Catholic by faith, Maggio is a member of the Conway Chamber of Commerce, the KIWANIS, the Arkansas Judicial Council and the Arkansas Bar Association. He is also an appointee to the Conway Housing Authority.
"How I came to be interested in the law was, I had a roommate in college. He was going to law school, when he was a senior and I was a junior. And almost on a whim, I went with him to take the LSAT exam." Maggio referenced the Law School Admissions Test. "I did well enough and decided to apply and see what happened. And I have loved the law, loved working in the law and being in the legal field ever since.
"I view our journey as if Iím the captain of a ship and our ship is going to pull up every day, at the courthouse, at the dock, at 9 oíclock. Those that want their cases heard, Iím available. Iím not trying to force somebody ahead of time before theyíre ready to go to trial. But we need to be there," Maggio emphasized the inclusive pronoun. "Ready to go, when theyíre ready. Because peopleís lives are in the balance.
"The biggest hurdle we have to jump, while Iím a big believer in trying to move the docket along and be expedient, is to be fair to both sides," he explained. "I want both to feel like they had their opportunity. I think that is what justice is supposed to be: timely, fair, impartial. And I can do all those if we move the cases along at a proper time and proper speed. And the biggest hurdle to that is the sheer number.
"Whether it be a civil case or criminal matter, itís important to those people. They have bills to pay, a land dispute, a divorce, or somebodyís in jail. Whatever it is, itís important to those people. They have things to be done and they want to move on.
"We had, the last 3 years, on average 4400 new cases being filed each year," Maggio continued. Roughly the equivalent of 17 Ďnewí cases being filed every day, five days a week, 50 weeks each year. "The national average, they say, for a judge to be able to move things along and not get swamped is about 1600 cases, and weíre nearly 3 times that national average," Maggio elaborated, noting that recent 2 year averages for the 20th Judicial District showed 4786 cases on the criminal docket, 1400 on the civil docket, 1677 involving domestic relations, 725 concerning probate and 3143 regarding juveniles. "As you can see, that is a large number of cases in each division," he said.
"The state has been gracious to allow us to have another judge appointed to this district, and that will help tremendously. But weíre in a district that is growing. Faulkner county is growing by leaps and bounds. Van Buren County, with the oil and gas movement for the next 20 years, will just increase the pressure of trying to get cases heard. With the increase in population, the Sheriffís department will be arresting more people, and there are more marriages, divorces and property disputes that come along with that as you get more people in a confined area," Maggio said.
"They say many times, the old saying, the wheels of justice move slowly. I guess the thing I take the most pride in is myself and Suzy and Ms. May (Maggio referenced Trial Court Assistant Susan McGehee, at left, and Court Reporter Mary May, at right, pictured with Maggio, at center), my team here, the ladies I work for and with, is that we strive to get our cases heard in a timely fashion.
"From a general public standpoint, having been a private practicing lawyer for ten years before becoming a judge, I know itís a very formal process, a very daunting process for most people. When somebody comes into court they donít know all the terms, they donít know all the rules and it is hard for them to keep up on a day like today when you have a little bit of everything on the docket. I know it can be frustrating out there. Sitting there saying, Why didnít he call my case?
"I understand they have anger, and I try not to be mean. But I canít have people just stand up in the courtroom wanting to scream things." Maggio referenced a woman held in handcuffs for an hour in the jury box for contempt subsequent to her series of verbal outbursts and rude gestures.
"They wouldnít do it in church or at a doctorís office, so they shouldnít do it here. And part of the breakdown, I think, comes from TV. They want that rough and tumble that they see on Judge Judy or Judge Joe Brown.
"The main thing I want folks to know is that weíre all trying to get through the case load. But I would never say Iím overworked. I asked for this job. I knew what it entailed. I asked for the voters to hire me. I knew what the pay was and I knew what the hours were. I knew what the caseload was. I canít complain about it.
"I was hired to be a judge to work every day. To hear cases every day. I feel if I donít do that, if Iím not providing a timely disposition of cases, that I have failed my part of the system. I think it is absolutely abominable, almost criminal, that it takes 3, 4, or 5 years for a case to get to trial. Now, that being said, there are certain times that it happens. But that should be an exception, not the rule.
"Time management: do it, dump it or delegate it. That was always what I was trained in. And I think that goes back to not having problems festering in a family situation. The way our system is set up, law and the judicial system truly stands in the breach between a civilized society and anarchy. If we donít do our job in the judicial system we fail the public. People lose faith in government and people say, you know what, Iím not going to wait 2 years for a day in court, Iím going to handle this problem right now, Iím gonna go do something on my own, and then bang!" Maggio grimaced.
On matters of Constitutionality -- what constitutes free speech or abortion rights or tax protests -- Maggio explained that such issues are generally handled by Federal court. But, he said, his court does address, on the criminal docket, such Constitutional questions as: Was it a legal search or not? Was it a legal stop or not?
"We do have those hearing on a routine basis, probably once or twice a month where somebody is alleging an illegal search of their house or car. So yes, we look at those kinds of issues." And no matter whether the issue is Constitutional, civil or criminal, Maggio knows it is unlikely that his decision will please everyone.
"They may not like my decision," he acknowledged. "I understand that. When you have two parties out there, somebodyís not going to be happy. But if we do our job, Suzy and Ms. May and myself, and move the cases through in a timely fashion, they can appeal. Thatís the way the system is set up. And still theyíve had their day in court. Their redress. I think thatís one of the things that makes America a great nation, that we have that rule of law and have the ability to adhere to it."
Somewhat impairing that ability in Arkansas, however, is the rather un-equal allocation of funding to judicial means.
"We have 3 co-equal branches of government: The Executive, the Legislative and the Judicial. A system of checks and balances. And in the scheme of things, it does work but there are extraordinary financial pressures on the judicial system. All the expenses of the Arkansas judicial system Ė salaries, courtrooms, everything added all up together from the Chief Justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court down to the local District and Circuit Courts, is less than ľ of 1% of the total budget of the state of Arkansas. And it would be nice to be able to get some improved courtroom technology, security and staffing, but when it comes to funding we seem to get pushed down to the bottom of the list. If we were a football team, itís like we have to wear helmets from the 1950s."
With 80 to 90 cases a day coming at his team rapid-fire, Maggio says he sometimes feels "like an emergency room doctor doing triage." And even on days that are planned to go well in accord of time management standards, he and his team feel much like "the owners of a restaurant."
Thatís because, said Maggio, it can be most frustrating when three or four cases are all settled the day before theyíre scheduled for court. Though heís glad to have the cases concluded, on such short notice it is often impossible to fill the resulting gaps in his docket.
"You have to be ready everyday, whether itís 5 people, fifty or five hundred. And if the people donít show up, what do you do? Itís frustrating on that end, because I care." Maggio said he makes a conscious decision every day to avoid falling prey to the acquired callousness which is too typical a side-effect of the workload most judges have to handle.
"You have to do things a certain way so itís fair to everybody. Treat everybody the same way when they have their case heard," Maggio said. His staff is highly complimentary of his professional mannerism, deferring to him as accommodating, caring about each individual person and openly communicative.
"People are people," Maggio continued. "I just try to treat them with respect and want the same back. Weíve been here until 2 oíclock in the morning, but we get to them all. And you have to have some kind of organization. Thatís why you have rules to follow. You canít have a free-for-all. It would just slow the process down. Thatís why Iím a slave to time management. Itís how I keep my sanity.
"I remember being in private practice and being in front of so many judges around the state. I practiced in all 75 counties on a regular basis. Iíve been in every courthouse in Arkansas as a private attorney, in front of 98% of all the judges. And the courtrooms I felt the most comfortable in were operated on procedure, in a formal manner. And as a judge now, it would consume me if I didnít have order.
"I have five children, in between 16 and 10," Maggio concluded. "So I have enough chaos at home that I have no control over." He smiled. "So if I had chaos at work too, it would drive me nuts." He chuckled. "Iím not saying my way is better." His gentle composure resumed. "Thatís why they make 31 flavors of ice cream. Iím just saying this is what works for me. Itís the way I am. If you brought 5 other judges in here, they would each have a different way of handling things." ~~~