By Lee Cataluna
Attorneys say, counselors say, even judges say that Monday morning on the eighth floor of the district court building is chaotic and potentially volatile.
The entire floor is reserved for domestic violence cases. Monday is when the court does a calendar call, with as many as 80 cases pushed through two courtrooms, in most instances to decide whether a case will go to trial.
These are violations of orders for protection, charges of abuse of a family member; situations where the accused and the accuser used to be, maybe still are, in love. It's highly emotional, often confusing, and frequently very scary for all involved.
The situation is exacerbated by the surroundings. The proceedings should be held with the rest of family court, in Circuit Court on Punchbowl Street, but there's not enough room there. On the eighth floor at the Alakea courthouse, people are jammed elbow to elbow in the hallway on Mondays. There are mothers with babies a few weeks old. There are folks with crutches and walkers. There are whole families huddled together, wearing the same hurt expression. The victim/witness room is too small to hold everyone, and often couples with violent histories end up face to face in the hall. Sometimes people burst into the victim/witness room to confront their accusers.
It's a bad situation. But it's getting better.
Judge Steve Alm, former U.S. attorney, has been on the bench less than a year, but says he's already seen positive changes. One big improvement is thanks to the sheriff's department. The sheriffs have a much greater presence on the eighth floor, whereas in the past there might not have been a single brown uniform in sight, even on the most tense days.
Another change is more philosophical. Judges don't order abusers to "anger management" classes anymore. The course is called "Domestic Violence Intervention." The difference is in acknowledging that most abusers don't have a problem with anger in general, but with anger at home. They can hold it together at work, and friends say they're the nicest people, but behind closed doors it's a different story.
Alm, who shares duties on the eighth floor with Judge Michael Wilson, is no-nonsense in his courtroom. Each defendant, from a first-time offender in an aloha shirt to the guy in prison-issued clothes with 65 violations of a protective order, gets the same stern lecture:
"Don't blame anything on her. You're an adult ... any acts of violence, any threats are the responsibility of the person who commits them."
Mondays are the busiest days, but every day is busy on the eighth floor. Every day the same judges, the same prosecutors, the same victim witness counselors, often the same defense attorneys go through a dizzying number of cases, each with its own dose of human suffering.
Says victim/witness counselor Nora Schubert, "The good thing is we all become specialists."