Entering a courtroom has always seemed a bit like walking through the doors of a theatre. There are actors who take their positions and say their lines. A director sits up high. A kind of Greek chorus comments on the action with a verdict.
The story is often mundane, but it can also be intriguing. The acts proceed in theory as a search for truth, and they can bring a cathartic resolution and some temporary enlightenment.
So when I enter a new courthouse, it is with a sense of exploration and anticipation, to see how the theatre building is set up. I check out the architecture, the plaques on the walls, historical displays, the clerical offices with their bound, soulless books of judgments, and the courtrooms themselves, in action or still, waiting for events to come.
On a recent trip to the political swing states of Pennsylvania and Ohio, I traveled with our bureau chief to a series of small courts in Western Pennsylvania.
We started in Lawrence County where a blocky government center holds the records and the courtrooms.
Inside, a friendly and efficient clerk named Karen works in an office painted Irish green. She finds newly filed civil actions for us to review, before they are docketed. I check out the courtrooms upstairs, and the unlocked doors open to a kind of vestibule fronted by a huge, wall-to-wall picture window that looks onto courtroom events, a bit like a nature diorama.
The next court on our tour is in Meadville where the courthouse, like many in this region, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
On a wooden bench outside a courtroom sat an unusual group. The women wore full denim skirts and bonnets. A young man had a long-sleeved, blousy shirt under a vest. It was as if they had been brought into the courthouse from a distant American past.
Out in front, a mounted metal sign tells us that Crawford is the “Birthplace of the Direct Primary.”
In 1842, the Democrats used the direct primary to select candidates for the Legislature, and the Republicans followed in 1860.
The election method then spread to other states and eventually became the principal method for selecting candidates for government office, as it is today.
From the courthouse, we walk around the corner to the Firehouse Tap and Grille where a bartender named Trinity serves us a rib sandwich so tall it is impossible to get the mouth around. Amazed that anyone would stick French fries into a sandwich, bureau chief Ryan Abbott tells me it is the culinary style in these parts.
Trinity is part of the Army National Guard. She has random tattoos on her arms, like many young people here. She says the town depends mostly on a fading tool and die trade.
She describes a small town society, divided along eternal lines, between those who own the small factories and those who work in them, with most of her friends in the former group.
We roll on to Venango County, home of the evangelical Wesleyan Bible Institute. The hallway on the main floor of the courthouse is lined with cases holding Indian artifacts including an enormous ceremonial tomahawk.
From there, we drive to the tiny court in Clarion County, early center of the iron industry. A deputy clerk is friendly and talkative, allowing us to search through the stacks. Green plants in pots are spread throughout the room where peeling ledgers are stacked in front of antique wood file boxes.
Here too a display cabinet stands in the main hallway, holding hand mining tools and other artifacts from the “Dark Days of Coal.”
On to Jefferson County Court of Common Pleas, where the orange-red brick and white wood courthouse is approached by ascending a sweeping horseshoe staircase festooned with American flags.
The interior of the courthouse includes rich white marble along the hallways and sumptuous, dark wood inside the main courtroom, which holds an upper level viewing gallery that easily seats one hundred.
On the way to neighboring Indiana County, we stop by Gobbler’s Knob, where the Punxsutawney Phil predicts the length of winter on Groundhog Day. Another mounted metal sign says the Groundhog Day festival on February 2 is a tradition started by German immigrants as far back as 1886. The sign tells us, “The legend is based on a European custom predicting the length of winter by weather conditions on Candlemas, an ancient Christian festival.”
Phil is ever present in the region, in front of tire stores and restaurants, and even standing on a file cabinet in the clerk’s office. Another life-sized statue stands outside the Indiana County courthouse, that of native son Jimmy Stewart, with an American flag placed in his hand.
There ended the work day in this college town which is home to Indiana University of Pennsylvania. We tried a set of cheese steaks at a college sports bar called Brunzie’s, and stayed at the Hilton on campus, before heading to Somerset, Fayette and Greene counties the next day.