Jenny Baumann's itinerary for her first trip to New York City: Rockefeller Center. The Empire State Building. Central Park. Night court.
In a city synonymous with theaters and nightlife, the 26-year-old from Munich was perched on a scarred wooden bench in a utilitarian room in lower Manhattan on a recent evening, straining to decode — sometimes even to hear — the methodical hubbub of arraignments in one of the nation's busiest courts.
“It's very interesting to hear real cases,” Baumann said as she and a friend watched a judge decide whether to set bail for people facing charges ranging from choking a girlfriend to stealing a six-pack of beer. Each case was handled in a matter of minutes amid a hive of clerks shuffling paperwork, police taking retinal scans, defendants and lawyers conferring in a confessional-sized glass booth and court officers occasionally bellowing, “Quiet, please!”
It's one of New York's more peculiar and paradoxical tourist traditions, a place visitors extol on travel websites while many residents hope never to wind up there. To travelers, it's gritty entertainment, hard-knocks education or at least a chance to experience real-life law and order on a New York scale.
Dozens of jurisdictions nationwide hold some court sessions at night, but Manhattan Criminal Court occupies a unique spot in the public's imagination, thanks to TV's “Law & Order” and “Night Court,” not to mention arraignments of real-life notables ranging from rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs to French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
The court handles more than 100,000 arrests a year, averaging about 70 to 90 cases during the 5 p.m.-1 a.m. night session — and that doesn't count people who got summonses, let alone New York City's four other boroughs.
Established in 1907, Manhattan night court once attracted such spectators as John D. Rockefeller and the then-Duke of Manchester. More recently, it's been noted in tour books.
Night court is so popular that veteran clerk Robert Smith has become an impromptu tour guide for school groups from as far away as Denmark, judges from Japan and individual sightseers he spots in the audience. “I try to make it informative” by explaining the process, he says.
If visitors find allure in night court, insiders understand why. “It is a 'just-off-Broadway show' with a cast of thousands, ever-changing story lines ... real drama, as well as occasional comic relief,” says Edward McCarthy, who oversees the Legal Aid Society's defense work there.
But if it can be entertaining to watch, it's fraught and serious work, notes acting State Supreme Court Justice Melissa Jackson, the Criminal Court's supervising judge from 2008 through 2012.
“From the judge's perspective and all of the attorneys' who work so hard, there's nothing amusing about it,” she said. “And the stakes are very high.”
Adam Jory Waxman and his wife took their 16-year-old son there last month while visiting from the Atlanta area, hoping it would be a lesson in choices and consequences. And it was.
“He saw that people got themselves in trouble and that there wasn't anything they could do about it until a judge made a decision,” Waxman said.