“The great legal scholar Lenny Bruce once observed that in the halls of justice the only justice is in the halls . . .”
The long, astonishing final sequence of Frederick Wiseman’s Juvenile Court (1973) details a probable-cause hearing in the matter of Robert Singleton. Just weeks shy of his 18th birthday, Robert stands accused before Kenneth A. Turner, chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Shelby County, Tennessee, on two counts of robbery with a deadly weapon — the result of one diabolical night as an unwilling, unarmed wheel-man in dual holdups of a Stop & Go and a Kentucky Fried Chicken in downtown Memphis. The hearing itself is pursuant to a motion by the district attorney’s office requesting that the case be remanded to criminal court, where the state can hold the defendant for action by the grand jury, and then try the little bastard as an adult along with his 19-year-old co-defendant.
Robert’s lawyer, who filed his appearance just hours before the hearing commenced, doesn’t dispute his client’s involvement in the stick-ups. But he argues that the court’s waiving jurisdiction simply because the boy is on the cusp of his majority under the statute would be spectacularly arbitrary. There’s no reason for it. This is not some deranged smack freak knocking over fried chicken joints to feed his miserable habit. Besides, the rules governing disposition of juvenile offenders in the state of Tennessee were designed with specific intent by the legislature, were they not? As such, their wisdom ought to be heeded with all due solemnity. As attorneys for both sides proceed to question the lead detective on the case, Judge Turner betrays a measure of impatience. “I think we’re wasting time here,” he finally declares; then calls a recess to the hearing while everyone — the lawyers, the detective, the kid’s probation officers; everyone, it seems, but the defendant himself — files into the judge’s chambers for an off-the-record conference. And that, as Wiseman has already shown us, is where the real work is done.
What’s remarkable about this court is how little in the way of guilt or innocence is decided in open session. Everything seems to be worked out on the sidelines, far more than the average criminal court where rules of procedure are observed somewhat more steadfastly. In Judge Turner’s bailiwick, it’s as though resolving these matters publicly were a tiresome ceremonial duty, a civic “noblesse oblige” that gets in the way of the court’s true function. The final colloquy in chambers is one of the more noteworthy scenes in American cinema of the 1970s. In the interplay of its principals, it’s a virtual anatomy of judicial cunning and benign treachery. Because everyone in that room knows why they’re there and what they’re about to do. There isn’t anything particularly furtive or sinister about it. It’s a carefully choreographed, extra-procedural folk dance that goes on in hundreds, if not thousands, of courthouses across America every day. Only in this instance the defendant’s guilt doesn’t appear to be at issue. That, we learn, has already been decided as a matter of course by all parties.
After some back and forth about drugs being a motivating factor in the robberies — and Robert’s own seduction by the many-headed Moloch of adolescent rebellion — the first hand is played: counsel for the prosecution casually states that they would not be opposed to withdrawing their motion if the court felt it in the young man’s best interest to place him in the State Vocational Training School out in Pikeville for an indefinite period while he straightens out whatever it is that causes him to drive around Memphis in the dead of night, getting involved in all manner of malicious mischief. But . . . they have no interest in ceding jurisdiction, none, if the defense intends to contest the charges in open court or request probation at a sentencing hearing. In other words, counsel has to plead his client out now or there’s no deal. Understanding the point before it was ever made, Robert’s lawyer then says, yes, if the State is willing and the court agreeable, he could see his way toward pleading the boy guilty to a lesser offense right then and there, so long as it’s in the best interest of the young man . . . and keeps him the hell away from a criminal proceeding where he’ll wind up doing a minimum of 20 years.
Judge Turner then speaks to defense counsel in a tone that hovers somewhere between question and instruction: “You wanna plead him guilty to simple robbery . . . two counts . . . and I’ll send him to the training school.” That’s that. Back in the courtroom, however, Robert collapses into a sorrowful state upon being informed of this whirlwind plea bargain. He can’t believe it. He wanted to take this to trial and prove he was forced at gunpoint to drive the getaway car — and his lawyer comes back with an indeterminate sentence at Crime School for him instead. “I feel like I been trapped,” he tearfully appeals to the judge before sentence is passed. “Is there any justice? Is there any justice for me?” He goes on and on about being innocent, to no avail. The naïveté of this kid is touching, really; as though he believes in his own innocence the way he once probably believed in Santa Claus. Amazing.
He’s too bereaved, of course, to comprehend that, in the judge’s words, he is “very guilty,” and that the plea deal was forged solely with his best interest at heart. After all, everybody says so: The judge, the prosecutor, even his own attorney. And when it’s all over and court has adjourned and Robert’s probation officer stands there, telling him with a straight face that they have wrought a miracle this day, and he should do his time in the juvenile facility like a man, and that it will all be erased someday, as in a dream, because “this is America, believe me,”, the only thing Robert can do is shake his lowered head and complain between sobs that while it might be America, it isn’t justice.
And on their way out of the courtroom, counsel for both sides shake hands and congratulate each other on a job well done.
The great legal scholar Lenny Bruce once observed that in the halls of justice the only justice is in the halls, and no one seems to feel the dolorous truth of these words more intimately than the youthful offenders in Wiseman’s film. The Singleton hearing, after all, is the summation of everything Frederick Wiseman has shown in its troubling, component parts throughout the preceding two hours. Boy or girl, black or white, angel or sociopath, the kids in Juvenile Court are unmoored, shorn of their will once they enter the building. Herded together, subject to random searches, shuffled from one end of the process to the other, usually left to sit lined up against a wall on ugly plastic laundromat chairs and wait while their destinies are carved into shape by functionaries in service to a system the accused can barely comprehend. In fact, anyone on the outside with a romantic, or even a conventionally cynical, attitude toward the criminal justice system would find it difficult to grasp the double-edged psychology that infests the process Wiseman details for us so skillfully.
On one end, the caretakers of this court appear to have a genuine compassion and concern for the basic welfare of their subjects. No one desires to see children maltreated, not even in the name of justice; if that means established courtroom procedure sometimes gets shoved aside, then so be it. Robert Singleton’s attorney, while hammering out the plea deal in the final sequence, articulates this ethos more succinctly than anyone: “I feel like sometimes we don’t necessarily do, or strictly follow what is prescribed by law books, but the end result of what we’re trying to achieve here . . . of what I’m trying to achieve here, is the manifest best interest of this boy.” And there can’t be a shred of doubt in anyone’s mind as to the man’s sincerity or the constancy of his heart. How would it benefit society, after all, to have kids spending what’s left of their youth in C-block, up to their eyeballs in hard-core felons, learning God-only-knows what? Meting out justice to minors is not a simple enterprise, and it has to be done with care . . . even if the pint-sized malefactors are almost always guilty as sin.
Which leads to the second, infinitely sharper edge of the court’s mentality: In every case Wiseman trains his camera on — and filming was conducted over a period of two months, February through March of 1973 — there’s never more than a vestigial shadow of that benchmark legal principle, the presumption of innocence. Guilt is presupposed by every adult from the outset, and all procedure seems deliberately geared toward searching for personality disorders, exacting confessions, or cutting plea deals with defense attorneys. That the odd species of justice on display in Juvenile Court is frequently tempered, cushioned by a substantial dose of mercy, doesn’t make this fundamental, tacit presumption any less disturbing. Or puzzling. It’s only as the film progresses, in those isolated moments when the court is not in a merciful humor, that these seemingly conflicting conditions resolve themselves, and the baseline venality of this system becomes clear.
In one instance, the case of an acne-ridden kid busted by undercover Narcotics Bureau agents for unlawful possession and sale of LSD, two ex-junkies who’ve let the Baby Jesus come into their hearts make a fervent appeal on behalf of the defendant. Waving Holiday Inn bibles around and testifying to their own foul, dissolute histories (“I was a beast on the streets of New York, your Honor”), they implore Judge Turner to permit his enrollment in their Christian-fellowship rehabilitation program. “Christ is the answer for this boy’s life!” one exclaims. But the judge will hear none of it. Normally he’d be inclined to let a young defendant journey down the sawdust trail of jailhouse salvation, but not only is this kid denying the charge — going so far as to claim an alibi for the day in question, the punk — that cipher he’s got from the public defender’s office isn’t playing ball either. As far as the court is concerned, if that piddling, uncooperative little . . . acid-head. . . declines to plead guilty and own up to his crimes, then he’s totally bereft of remorse and cannot truly, in the judge’s words, “turn to the Lord.” There’ll be no Chautauqua tent rehab for this youngster; not in Shelby County. The case, though no one has formally requested it, is remanded to criminal court.
First broadcast over PBS stations on October 1, 1973, Juvenile Court was the seventh creation in what has been a steady flow of masterful non-fiction cinema from Frederick Wiseman; a canon that now numbers thirty-four films — he’s recently completed his thirty-fifth, The Garden — and is the most (perhaps the only) important body of work in the worn out subspecies known as “cinema verite” (only two of his films are nominal works of fiction). It’s a term Wiseman absolutely rejects. When he dilates upon it in interviews, he’s more apt to call his work something like “reality fiction” or the more fanciful “reality dream” (he’s also more apt, when expounding on his methods, to sound like a cross between Stan Brakhage and Professor Irwin Corey). But Wiseman is not, as so many critics have pegged him, a serial dissector of American institutions in the old muckraking journalist style (an understandable error, given the generic titles most of his films carry). Rather he has been a chronicler of systems — many of which are institutional by default — and the interaction they have with those subject to their unvanquishable will.
In his earliest films, Frederick Wiseman explored social systems with a degree of ironic lyricism that did little to conceal a deep well of pessimism in his vision. He was too preoccupied by the implied dimension of horror he seemed to see in the most ordinary corners of American life to keep it completely hidden. I’m not even sure he wanted to hide it. The bleak, songlike High School (1968), for example, found within a typical public school in Pennsylvania a desolate social factory that — through a well-oiled process of controlled boredom, no-win repression, enforced mediocrity, and crushing conformity — promulgated a virtual genocide of the spirit and, when successful, spat out a chilling final product. Juvenile Court, in many ways an extension of High School, was (and remains) an immensely distressing coming-of-age film. In it, every principle of justice, long thought to be at the center of our legal system, is reduced by the mechanisms of the court to nothing more than the fantasy-ideals of childhood, the sort of thing kids are supposed to grow out of if they want to become “useful” citizens. Adult tyranny, here carrying the imprimatur of the state, is rendered a systemic fact of life from which there is no effective escape. In Judge Turner’s courtroom (and, by implication, others like it across the fruited plain), a defendant’s very status as a juvenile — the only thing standing between a youthful offender and the ultimate horror of life in the penitentiary — is conditioned by an acceptance of guilt to offenses implicitly more vast and encompassing than the comparatively venial sins that brought them before the bar of justice in the first place. Only those children who surrender any claim to innocence are eligible for the court’s very tender mercies.