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THE DARK SIDE: I miss the old courthouse cafeteria

Now that, after an 11-year hiatus, I’ve returned to being a full-time courthouse rat, people ask me what’s the biggest difference.

It’s not the faces. Sure, a lot of the old judges have been replaced by new ones. And I no longer recognize every assistant district attorney in the county. But it’s not a big deal.

The biggest difference is that you can no longer smoke in the cafeteria.

“Is that really such a big deal?” you ask.

Well, yeah. It’s ruined the whole courthouse culture.

Sometimes, after finishing my morning calendar, I stop in the cafeteria hoping to get a cup of coffee and hang out with the other attorneys. But there’s nobody there.

It didn’t used to be like that. In the ’90s, the courthouse cafeteria was kind of like a high school cafeteria, and every bit as cliquish. If your high school was anything like mine, there was a table for jocks, another for burnouts and another for straights. For you younger attorneys, the word “straight” had nothing to do with sexual orientation back then; it meant you didn’t smoke marijuana.

Similarly, at the courthouse cafeteria, the tables were divvied up by profession.

At one table, the criminal defense attorneys, plus a couple of prosecutors, swapped war stories and grumbled about how awful the judges were. At another table, the court clerks grumbled about the attorneys. And at yet another, the bailiffs grumbled about everybody.

There was one bailiff, now retired, who I used to hang out with at the bowling alley all the time. But I would never have dreamed of sharing a cup of coffee with him and the other bailiffs in the courthouse cafeteria. Nor would he have ever considered joining me at the attorney table.

No, at the courthouse cafeteria, everyone stayed comfortably ensconced in his or her own special subculture.

There, if you hadn’t already mastered it, you quickly learned the fine art of putting on a veneer of cynicism. A stranger to the cafeteria would reasonably have concluded that no one in the justice system gave a damn about anything.

Besides grumbling about the other participants in the justice system, we also grumbled about money. The private attorneys would bemoan how difficult it is to make a living practicing law. And the civil servants would bemoan how many more years they had to work until they could retire on their Cadillac pension plans.

But there was one thing we all had in common, whichever table we sat at: We all loved to smoke cigarettes. And there, in that hazy room, with our coffee, we could enjoy each other’s camaraderie for a short break in the workday.

But all that camaraderie is gone now. The cafeteria is just a big empty room. When our court calendars are done, we all just go straight back to work at the office. Call it another progressive dream fulfilled.

And like all the progressives’ accomplishments, it is not a change for the better.

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