by Foong Cheng Leong
Published April 13, 2016
Article first published in Loyar Burok on 13.04.2016.
Cheng Leong was in San Franciso attending #RightsCon2016 on behalf of the MCCHR, and had some time to visit a Californian criminal court, and observed proceedings for a day. He does not comment on the differences with the Malaysian system, but anyone who has been to a Malaysian Court will see some key differences.
Instead of spending time checking out the tourist spots of San Francisco, I spent half a day in the District Court of Northern District of California.
It was a stone’s throw from my hotel hence the visit. Security was pretty tight. I couldn’t enter without my passport and they only accept locally issued IDs. I had to go through a metal detector and I had to empty my pockets for the x-ray machine.
The Court takes up about 4 floors. I took a lift to the 18th floor to find a law library. The librarian told me that it’s not open to the members of the public but she allowed me to enter anyway.
It was a rather small library but with an intensive collection of law reports and textbooks. The Americans have all sorts of law reports to cater specific fields of law. There was a law report on bankruptcy cases, Attorney General’s Opinions and patents (which included other IP cases). There were also books on Courtroom designs – wtf!
I had the opportunity to observe a Court proceedings. The judge was a Chinese American judge by the name of Edward M Chen.
The case has 7 defendants charged with gang robbery. All of them are Hispanic origins. I later found out the case is called USA v. Juan Carlos Garcia-Gomez and others.
They were wearing orange jumpsuits and cuffed together by their hands and legs guarded by two fairly large Chinese guards in suits. But they were all seated on a comfortable padded chair – identical to to the ones used by counsels.
One defendant had a headset on him as he could not understand English. There was a interpreter standing on the far side of the Court interpreting the proceeding live to the him. The interpreter had a paper covering his mouth to muff his voice.
The defendants were each represented by different counsels. The bar (where the lawyers are seated) were separated into two long rectangular tables. I’m not sure whether its intended but the defendant lawyers sat at one rectangular table whereas the prosecution sat on the other.
When the Judge came in, the clerk announced “All Rise” and we stood up. There was no bowing unlike our Court. Each counsel approached one of the podiums (there were two) to introduce themselves. The counsels addressed the Judge as Your Honour and greeted the Judge “Good Afternoon” before introducing their names and who they represent.
The case was a case management before trial. There was a long discussion on something called 404B. Lawyers not participating in the discussion were on their laptops or chatting quietly with other lawyers. There was also a water dispenser for the lawyers to use.
Halfway while a counsel was submitting, his phone rang and the counsel quickly excused himself. The Judge didn’t seem to mind at all and spoke to the Prosecution while the counsel finished his call and put his mobile on his seat.
The public gallery was filled with members of the Hispanic community. Presumably family members of the defendants. I was the only Chinese on the public gallery. There’s free wifi in each Courtroom.
The case finished at 3pm. The public gallery was immediate vacated and none of the family members were allowed to speak to the defendants.