The Ottumwa Courier

Court Calls

December 16, 2011

A surprising profile of trial

Court Calls

OTTUMWA — When most people imagine a court trial, they think of what they see on television— a handsomely appointed courtroom, equipped with hardwood tables upon which lawyers spread papers and set up computers. A judge perched on a sturdy bench — elevated to symbolize authority and flanked by flags that represent the court’s role in government. In real life, however, a trial environment is likely far more modest.  The divorce case I tried this week in Appanoose County was conducted in an office — from the judge’s desk, the “no-contact” parties sitting just 36 inches apart, and the court reporter tucked in by the radiator. It was a serious trial in open court, nonetheless, and it was the best we could do that particular day.        

Timing is crucial to achieving justice. Americans count on their right to a timely trial for peaceful dispute resolution. As Webster’s tells us, the trial is a “formal examination of the facts of a case by a court of law to decide the validity of a charge or claim.” Trials are scheduled well in advance so people can adequately prepare. Trial time is scarce and trial dates must be firm. In District 8-A some trials are currently being scheduled for dates 18 months into the future. Often cases are set two-to-three deep on the calendar, due to the demand.  

Visitors who come to court these days are often surprised by the circumstances of the trial in courthouses where dockets are jammed and space is limited. To find a place for trial, sometimes people are shuttled back to a judge’s office. Or, they may find themselves planted in someone else’s space: I once tried a case in a county supervisors’ office! Then there was the two-day trial in a fire station when a courtroom was shut down over a health threat. Perhaps my tallest task so far was to bring decorum and dignity to a trial I had to convene in a basement storage room.  

It takes focus, finesse, and resilience to set the proper tone and deliver due process in each case, despite the conditions of the day. Judges are wise to remember that, to the people involved, each case is “the most important case” on the docket. That’s a trial profile we are challenged to meet on time, on date, on site, in a busy court system.

Judge Scieszinski is one of the six district court judges who travel among the ten counties in the  8-A Judicial District. She may be reached at

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