The Greatest Show on Dirt!

It's wild. It's comic. It's tragic. It's completely real, and best of all, it's free! Welcome to Jerry Springer Court.

Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! Everyone’s welcome, absolutely free of charges! Welcome to Jerry Springer Court here in Department 4 of the Alameda County courthouse in downtown Oakland. Judge Julie presiding. Now let me just warn you folks right about now: Things can get a little hairy in here.

What’s that, ma’am? Why’s it called Jerry Springer Court? Well, it’s like this — you know the trashy talk show where people get outta control and throw chairs at each other? Sometimes things get a little outta control during the Friday morning restraining-order calendar, though this here’s 100 percent real, and I’ve never heard of anyone throwing chairs.

Oh, but just a few weeks ago this lady — I don’t know quite what was up with her — flipped out when the judge ordered her to let her baby’s daddy have their little girl for part of Thanksgiving and Christmas. So she gets this weird look on her face and starts screaming, “Kill me now, because it’ll never happen.” The two bailiffs — the captain tries to assign an extra one, since things can get a little hectic in here, like I said — almost had to spray her with Mace to get her under control. You know what that lady said to ’em? “Spray me!” she said. Wanna know what’s even crazier? She got custody of the kid again after she got out of jail. That was during the domestic-violence calendar, the first act of the morning, so to speak. Pretty tragic stuff on that there calendar. The elder-abuse calendar is tragic, too.

Sorry, sir, didn’t catch your question. Oh, you’re not into tragedy? Then what you really want is the 10 a.m. civil-harassment calendar. Some people call this the “catfight calendar.” Ya know, the new girlfriend versus the ex-girlfriend — stuff like that. These don’t get heard as domestic cases, ’cause the two parties aren’t blood-related or intimates. See the difference?

We get other cases besides catfights. Lotsa, lotsa feudin’ neighbors filing restraining orders one against the other. It’s the Hatfields and the McCoys right here in the land of the $500,000, two-bedroom tract home. I remember this one group of neighbors tried to get a protective order against some Santeria voodoo priest to stop him from casting evil spells on them.

Then there are the real crazies. Like this one lady thought Mayor Jerry Brown could vaporize himself and was getting into her apartment through her shower drain. Course, I don’t think the judge gave her a restraining order against the mayor.

Now before we get the show rolling, let me tell you a little bit about our judge, Julie Conger. She’s a bit eccentric herself. She always wears these really colorful scarves to give that black robe hanging on her scarecrow shoulders a little personality. She’s from Berkeley; used to be a public defender a long time ago. Yep, only in Berkeley would folks elect themselves a public defender instead of a prosecutor for a judge. Man, that musta been twenty years ago now.

The good lady is the perfect fit to oversee our little tabloid circus. She’s not one to suffer fools, even in a fools’ court. Kinda reminds me of that feisty judge on the TV.

Occasionally there’s what you might call a guest host, another judge who fills in when she’s on vacation, but Judge Conger was telling someone in court just the other day, “Anytime I take a vacation, the judge who replaces me vows never to return.”

I think she actually gets a kick outta this place. The Recorder legal newspaper reported how she used to tape a sign on the back of her nameplate on the bench — where no one else in the court could see — that read “The Honorable Jerry Springer.” She’s got her a wicked sense of humor, this judge. Sometimes the do-gooders around town grumble that she makes inappropriate comments from the bench. Like the other day, this lady starts telling her story and Judge Conger interrupts to ask: “Is this when she called you a slut and a cocaine addict?”

Watch the judge when she smiles. It’s like she’s grinning and wincing at the same time. It’s the perfect expression for this place. I mean, sometimes life is so funny it hurts, or else it hurts so much it’s funny. Around here, you never quite know which one you’re gonna get. And, by the way, all the names in the cases themselves have been changed to protect the … well, we can’t really say “innocent,” now, can we? Ah, here comes Judge Conger. All quiet now. Take your seats, sit on back, and enjoy the show.


Act 1: Oddballs

Couch Potato Kid

Anthony Cerrano is 42 years old, although he’s dressed like a 22-year-old hesher who went to an Iron Maiden concert the night before. And he’s still living with his Italian-born mama, Rose, who is sick of having to support her lazy son on her pitiful Social Security check. But how do you force a deadbeat without a regular job to move out and find his own place? Why, with an elder-abuse restraining order, of course.

The proceedings start with Judge Julie asking Rose if she is Anthony’s mother.

“Yes,” the pint-size lady says with an audible Italian accent, “and I-a love him.”

Anthony, meanwhile, stays quiet. For once. Four years earlier, Rose filed a restraining order against him for yelling at her all the time while he was freeloading. That obviously didn’t work out so well, because Anthony is still freeloading.

Conger looks over to the grown man. Obviously, the judge reasons aloud, Mr. Cerrano is old enough to live on his own.

“Like I-a say,” Rose interjects, “I-a love him. He’s no-a badda son.” But at 72, Rose says, she deserves to live by herself. Judge Conger agrees and orders Anthony to move out of his mom’s house within 45 days.

Next-Door Kidnappers

When Judge Julie calls out the name Clysta Claxton, the plaintiff stands up — and out. Claxton looks as out of place as a Pottery Barn catalogue in a methadone clinic waiting room. She carries her legal papers in a bamboo basket and wears a white linen top with black patent-leather shoes. She’s a theater snob, and it shows. Being an actress, Claxton has a flair for the dramatic: She’s here to prevent the kidnapping of her fourteen-year-old daughter by her Berkeley neighbors — who moved to Bogotá three months earlier.

Conger scrutinizes the plaintiff with skepticism. The respected couple she’s accusing — half of which was honored by the Oakland Chamber of Commerce earlier this year — lives thousands of miles away in another country. What threat, the judge wants to know, would Ms. Keane — the party named in the application — pose to Claxton or her daughter that warrants a restraining order?

Claxton’s claim, as laid out in court filings, goes like this: Her former neighbors had grown incredibly attached to Claxton’s daughter, Maya, whom they were now plotting to abduct and bring to Colombia to live with them.

The evidence is ambiguous at best. Maya, Claxton claims, was trying to get a passport behind her back. The nosy mother had also come across what she believed were instant-message conversations between the two, discussing the girl’s living options should she and her mom “part ways.” Claxton wants an order to stop “all manner of contact” — including e-mails and phone calls — between Keane and Maya. Otherwise, she wrote the judge, “I believe that my daughter will be improperly influenced and may attempt to leave the country without my knowledge or permission.”

Keane, who is in Colombia, doesn’t bother attending the court hearing to determine whether she’ll have to stay one hundred yards away from Claxton and her daughter. She does, however, send her attorney with an affidavit outlining her side. Keane claims Claxton has a “tumultuous” relationship with Maya and has even talked about trying to “unadopt” the kid — which Claxton denies. Indeed, Keane acknowledges feeling close to Maya. She considers herself a mentor to the girl, even once participating in a parent-teacher meeting at Claxton’s insistence. Keane also admits that she and her husband had discussed with Claxton the idea of taking legal custody of Maya, but immediately backed off when Claxton refused. Keane says she respects the other woman’s rights as the mom, and assures the court she has no intention of kidnapping the kid. But she asks the judge not to block her from communicating with Maya.

“I don’t see any danger to you,” Judge Conger tells Claxton, sounding like a mother growing impatient with her own stubborn teenage daughter. She abruptly dismisses the case, telling Claxton to come back in a few weeks. Three weeks later, the judge strikes a deal: She won’t sign off on the restraining order, but does persuade Keane to file an affidavit swearing she won’t encourage the kid to leave her mom — or the country, for that matter.


Intermission I: Disorder in the Court

Exactly how the Friday morning restraining-order calendar came to be known as “Jerry Springer” among employees of the Rene C. Davidson courthouse is something of a mystery. Some say the bailiffs — deputy sheriffs assigned to the court — came up with it. Others credit (or blame) Judge Conger, who took over the calendar in 1999 as the trashy TV talk-show genre was reaching new heights in popularity. Whatever the case, ask anyone with a robe or a badge at the Fallon Street courthouse where you can find the Jerry Springer Court, and they’ll be able to direct you.

When asked about the name, Karen Pucci, a paralegal in the district attorney’s office who assists domestic-violence victims on Fridays, coyly replies, “Why do you think?” She proceeds to tell a story about her first day on the job at the Jerry Springer Court some four years earlier.

It was early in the morning, and the doors to Department 4 were still locked while courtroom participants waited anxiously in the hallway. This was not good, to put it lightly. It meant the protected and restrained parties were in close enough proximity to smell the Cheerios on each other’s breath. So inevitably, fights broke out and a handful of people were arrested, Pucci says. Now, she adds, everyone makes sure the doors are open by 8:30 sharp.

Sit around for a few sessions of Friday morning court-combat, and it becomes clear why someone would name it after a TV show. Most of the people involved aren’t represented by lawyers, and cases usually boil down to one person’s word against another’s. This gives the proceedings a he-said, she-said quality reminiscent of low-budget reality TV, in which everyone tries to talk at once, and “talk to the hand” gestures and rolled-eye rebuttals pass for reasoned debate. Sure, people can bring witnesses, witness affidavits, or police reports to back up their stories, but most regular folks don’t think like lawyers. They think like, well, trash-talking Jerry Springer guests, for whom the winning argument is the one that makes all the spectators go “Oooooohhhh.”

The Springer Court experience can be unnerving for those truly frightened for their safety. Even in the courtroom, alleged victims and their alleged attackers sit just a few feet apart while they wait for their cases to be called. A couple of weeks ago, a thirtysomething mother from Oakland — nearly everyone in Conger’s Friday court lives in Oakland — kept nervously shuffling through her court paperwork and sneaking peeks at the four people two rows ahead of her who she claimed had threatened to hurt her and her oldest daughters. She’d written out her speech to the judge — beginning with “Your honor” — so she’d be ready. As time dragged on, she looked at the person next to her, mustered an uncomfortable smile, and whispered, “I’m scared.”

Her case, heard the day before Thanksgiving, turned out to be the last one of the day, and Judge Conger seemed in a sour mood. Noticing the woman’s orange folder, Conger snapped, “I take it it’s your long sad story you want me to read.” Then — justifiably — the judge chastised the woman for not bringing her witness or even a sworn witness statement. The plaintiff leaves without the permanent restraining order she wanted, though Conger generously extends the temporary one for a year. Court staffers, as they always do, make sure the opposing parties don’t leave at the same time, to prevent skirmishes outside the courtroom.

Courthouse employees often get a little embarrassed when an outsider — such as a reporter — asks them about the thing they call Jerry Springer. Judge Conger, for instance, declined to be interviewed for a story focused on the Springer aspect of her court.

Her reticence is understandable. Gallows humor is a generally accepted antidote among judges, cops, prosecutors and, yes, journalists, who often deal with humanity at its most despicable. But to the public it can sound pretty insensitive. So if you don’t have the stomach for the gallows, by all means skip ahead. Otherwise, stick around and we’ll get on with the show.


Act 2: Catfights!

‘Cunt’ v. ‘Bitch’

Sometimes, catfights break out over the Internet. This particular case was rooted in an ugly divorce between a lawyer from a high-powered firm and her poet-professor husband of fourteen years. The 52-year-old poet left his wife, Kira Burke, and upgraded to a newer-model muse, a student half his age named Sharon. Since the couple had a teenage son, the scorned lawyer still had to deal with her ex-hubby, and did so mostly by e-mail.

That’s how things wound up in Jerry Springer Court. Burke sent her ex an angry e-mail accusing him of shirking his parental responsibilities so that he could run off to Las Vegas and marry the woman she’d come to refer to as his “bitch.”

The next day, she received an e-mail from her young successor that began, “Dear CUNT …” The rival went on to issue a challenge: “If you have an issue with me … BRING IT ON! 🙂 … If you would rather duke it out, pick the street corner, baby.”

It was signed: “Much love, The BITCH.”

After a few more nasty exchanges, Burke told her ex to “call off your bitch.”

Then things suddenly got weirder. The lawyer began getting perverted e-mails at work from total strangers. Here’s a sampling of the smut clogging her inbox that first day:

  • “Hello … tall, strong (6’1″, 210 lb, 7 thick inches) disciplinarian here would love to spank a naughty girl like you … over my knee, skirt up, panties down … across my lap … can you feel that?”
  • “love to fuck u hard”
  • “You will trim your pubic hair to a minimum and shave completly [sic] around your dirty little slut pussy lips. … You will never wear pants, jeans or slacks when I am present. … Tell me more about yourself other than that you want to be spanked and look like Meryl Streep.”

Not exactly legal briefs. Burke quickly discovered that someone — naturally, she suspected the BITCH — had placed an ad on the “casual encounters” section of Craigslist, the popular Web forum. The headline read: “DWF — meryl streep look alike — w4mm.” And the ad itself: “In need of a good spanking. Please be forceful. Train me to be a good girl.” At the end of the message was her work e-mail address, which included her real first and last names. Now Bay Area bondage bad-boys knew her name and where she worked. So Burke went and got a temporary restraining order.

Now the CUNT was in court seeking a permanent restraining order against the BITCH. Judge Julie asks the younger woman, now the poet’s wife, what she’s willing to admit to.

“I wrote the e-mails,” the woman concedes. “I did not post the Craigslist [ad].”

Conger is skeptical. She tells the woman that, considering the circumstances, “the only conclusion that can be drawn would be that somehow you were involved.”

“I am no threat to her,” the BITCH insists. “I fear that she may be a threat to me because of the things she has done at my house and the things she has said to me on the phone.”

At this point the husband, who hasn’t been sworn in but stands alongside the BITCH and the CUNT, pipes up, “I would like to say that I think that none of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for more than a yearlong barrage of abusive e-mails — and also abuse in person — to both [my new wife] and myself from [Ms. Burke].”

“Sir, excuse me,” Conger snarls. “I cannot allow you to continue to lay blame upon your ex-wife, and I suggest you not interfere in this.”

The judge does, however, point out that no one in this case has clean hands. The ex-wife, after all, had written some nasty e-mails herself. Still, Conger is inclined to order the new bride to stay away from and not communicate with her husband’s ex. She tells them that if both are going to attend one of the teenage son’s school events — a play, for instance — they should keep a reasonable distance ( i.e. 25 feet) apart.

“Your honor,” the BITCH pleads. “I ask that when she calls the house that she not curse me out when all I do is say hello.”

“I don’t,” the CUNT snaps.

Conger quickly cuts them off, and the hearing ends without any more fur being flung or ears bitten.

About a Boy

The five Gonzalez sisters — ranging in age from 13 to 23 — stand side by side, forming a descending human staircase at the defendants’ end of the courtroom table. They’ve apparently picked out their fanciest, tightest-fitting hoochie-wear especially for the benefit of the court, and the family’s genetic propensity for hairspray and lip liner couldn’t be clearer. “We’re not the ones harassing them,” the oldest sister says, gesturing toward two demure Mexican women in their early twenties who are being aided by a Spanish-speaking interpreter. “They’re harassing us.”

Each side in this case already has obtained a temporary restraining order against the other. The two modest ladies filed first, claiming that the sisters went to their workplace and attacked them, pulling their hair and punching one in the stomach in order to kill her unborn baby.

The sisters retaliated fifteen days later with their own temporary order, but their application neglected to disclose that they’d been hit with a restraining order just two weeks earlier. They accused the two women of slapping them near Woolworth’s and taunting them over the phone.

The eldest Gonzalez tells the judge that the angry phone calls began a couple of months ago over a boy. “What a surprise,” Conger interjects sarcastically. “That’s something new to this court.”

Apparently, the second-youngest sister, age fourteen, had been dating a guy named Pedro. One of the other women, Marta, allegedly had designs on him and wanted the Gonzalez girl out of the way.

Conger appears both irritated and bemused. It was yet another catfight over some loser who apparently is involved both with a jailbait teenager and a 25-year-old woman. And these women are fighting over him? The judge announces her decision: “Everybody is going to stay away from everybody — including the infamous Pedro.”


Intermission II: A Restraining Order Is Born

Just 25 years ago, domestic violence, stalkers, and restraining orders weren’t part of the layperson’s lexicon. Now, Superior Court judges such as Julie Conger devote an entire day each week to hearing almost nothing but restraining-order petitions.

The civil-harassment orders, with their characteristically oddball disputes, are at the heart of the Jerry Springer calendar. They cover absurd catfights; feuding neighbors; retailers and churches trying to boot drunken bums from their properties; and teachers fending off overzealous parents. One case involved an animal lover determined to keep her foe from stealing her kitty, and then there are the moms trying to stop bad boys from dating their teenage daughters.

The scene is a far guffaw from the legislation that gave birth to civil harassment restraining orders 25 years ago. In 1978, South Bay Assemblywoman Leona Egeland — then one of just two female state lawmakers — introduced a bill that aimed to protect people against unknown stalkers. Only people didn’t call it “stalking” back then. They called it “harassment,” a term too vague for the courts, which Egeland says wouldn’t issue a protective order unless someone had made an explicit threat to hurt the other person.

Egeland introduced her bill after a law school student, whose parents lived in her district, asked the lawmaker for help. The student’s story involved a male student from another school who followed her around, frequently wrote her notes, sent unwanted gifts, and showed up uninvited at social events. “It got really creepy,” recalls Egeland, who now works in the private sector.

At first, the bill met resistance from male legislators, who dismissed the behavior as innocent romantic persistence. Egeland recalls that the turning point came when several men, including a Sacramento deputy sheriff, testified to their own experiences with what we now call stalkers.

The bill, as signed into law by then-Governor Jerry Brown, defined harassment as conduct aimed at a specific person that “seriously alarms, annoys, or harasses such person, and which serves no legitimate purpose.” Then came the phrase the courts would use to evaluate the legitimacy of any restraining order request: “The course of conduct must be such as would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress, and must actually cause substantial emotional distress to the plaintiff.”

Yes, it’s pretty vague. What’s a “reasonable person?” Does anyone consider himself an unreasonable person? Of course not. Maybe that’s why a law intended to protect people from stalkers has come to be used as a panacea for the vindictive, or for neighbors or paranoids who think they’re being messed with. Perhaps most disturbing, civil-harassment restraining orders have themselves become tools for harassment.


Act 2: Abusing the System

Meet ‘The Restrainer’

“Do you swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” the court clerk asks a 43-year-old single dad wearing a T-shirt from the Million Family March, an event promoted by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

“I do,” he replies, as everyone does.

Judge Conger takes a moment to have a look at the plaintiff, Larry Wilson of Oakland. She’s seen this guy before. Many times. Over the past six years, court records show, Wilson has been involved in at least eight different restraining-order lawsuits. In five of the cases he was the one seeking protection from neighbors; in the others, they sought to be protected from him.

Just a year earlier, a woman in his North Oakland apartment building accused him of throwing garbage on her doorstep, flinging eggs at her place, and threatening to “shoot up” her property. Three months before that case was heard, Wilson asked for protection from his downstairs neighbor, a Hispanic redhead nearly a foot shorter than him who threatened to “kick his ass” because he complained about her loud music.

Conger looks at Wilson and estimates aloud that she must see him in her court every five or six months demanding a restraining order against a neighbor.

Wilson corrects the judge. He hasn’t been in her court for more than a year, he says, with a sincerity that makes it clear he has no idea how ridiculous he sounds.

People snicker in the gallery.

Conger notes in a skeptical tone that even though Wilson has moved, he is now warring with someone in his new neighborhood, although in this case the person lives several blocks away instead of next door. Wilson has written in his affidavit that he knew his latest assailant through his in-laws.

Like so many people in Jerry Springer Court, Wilson isn’t here to be lectured. He’s here to testify. He just wants to tell his story and have it judicially validated, which it is to an extent by the mere process of making a judge listen while a court reporter transcribes it for posterity. So Wilson tells it: The defendant — a three-hundred-pound giant, according to Wilson’s affidavit — chased him down in a BMW and pulled a 9mm semiautomatic pistol on him.

The judge seems flummoxed by Wilson’s inability to see his own folly. People seem to be mad at you a lot, she tells him. Maybe, she suggests, he should do some self-examination to see why he’s always fighting with everyone. “You must have more restraining orders than anyone else in Alameda County,” she says.

In spite of Conger’s reservations, Wilson has done everything required of him under the law: He had the defendant — who’s a no-show for the court hearing — properly served, and he swore to having been threatened in a way most people would find scary. Judge Conger goes ahead and adds another bullet point to Wilson’s restraining-order résumé.

The Mercedes from Hell

What happens when the alleged harasser named in a restraining order turns out to be the one being harassed? For Oakland’s Mark Morrison, it meant having his otherwise spotless record sullied by an arrest and a night in jail, taking time off work for stress, and borrowing money to hire an attorney to defend him and clear his police record.

The 42-year-old’s nightmare began in late 2002, when a neighbor at his North Oakland condo building began parking her Mercedes in a spot reserved for the building maintenance crew. The spot happened to be next to Morrison’s, and he later complained to condo management after he found his car dinged up, damage he attributed to the doors of the Mercedes. Soon after complaining, Morrison found his tires slashed, and was convinced the Mercedes driver, a 44-year-old local real-estate agent named Deborah Grayson, was responsible.

One mid-January morning, Morrison again saw the Mercedes parked in the restricted spot, so he knocked on Grayson’s door to talk to her. Although he heard someone inside, no one answered, he later testified, and he went home to prepare for work. Twenty minutes later, police greeted him in the parking garage: they’d had a call from the Mercedes woman that he’d been harassing her.

In court, a third neighbor contradicted Grayson’s claim that he’d been “loud, rude, and boisterously” banging at her door for ten minutes, instead testifying that Morrison had knocked and “waited quietly” for a response before he gave up. In any case, the cops told Morrison he could take Grayson to small-claims court over the car damage, and told her she could file for a restraining order if Morrison kept harassing her.

She filed two weeks later, after Morrison wrote to the homeowners’ association revealing his plans to sue her for the damage to his car. He was stunned. He’d never threatened Grayson, just demanded she pay for the two tires he believed she’d slashed.

Then things got worse for Morrison. Before the scheduled court hearing where a judge would hear from both sides, the cops showed up at his door one night around midnight and arrested him for violating Grayson’s temporary restraining order by sending her a letter. Morrison had indeed written to Grayson to let her know he planned to take her to small-claims court, but insisted he’d sent the letter days before she filed for her temporary order. He later accused her of showing police an envelope with a later postmark date in order to frame him.

Morrison spent that night in jail and was bailed out by his roommate the following morning. The district attorney never filed charges, according to Morrison’s lawyer, but for the first time in his life, he had an arrest record.

The feud finally landed in Jerry Springer Court this spring. Morrison’s attorney says Judge Julie pulled both lawyers aside and said she didn’t think there was enough evidence for a permanent restraining order against Morrison. The judge kept the temporary order in effect for two more months in the hope that things might resolve themselves.

They didn’t.

The day after Morrison won a $3,273 judgment against Grayson in small-claims court, the two passed in the hallway as he was returning from the laundry room. He became wary, and hid in the hallway to keep an eye on his laundry. He alleges he saw her carry a bottle of bleach into the laundry room and then sneak back to her apartment. When he went to check on his clothes, they’d been doused with bleach. Shortly thereafter he filed for a restraining order against her, saying he’d heard that Grayson had told others she was going to hire someone to hurt him. Ten days later, she retaliated by filing yet another restraining order against him. It ultimately fell upon the Springer Court’s guest host — Judge Cecilia Castellanos, who’d signed Grayson’s original temporary order — to sort it all out.

Morrison arrives in court looking frail, his wire-rim glasses clinging to his pointy face. In his application, he said he suffered from a chronic illness. Grayson shows up in a black leather trench coat with shoulder pads, carrying herself like someone who takes no shit.

Although she has an attorney, Grayson doesn’t make a very persuasive victim standing next to a man she probably could pin in ten seconds flat. Morrison, she complains, is all up in her business, always “looking and looking, lurking.” She denies doing damage to his car. When his turn comes, Morrison sounds every bit as frail as he looks as he quietly tells his story in a slight Southern accent. “I’ve never harassed Ms. Grayson,” he whispers. “I’ve tried to be as unobtrusive as possible.”

For this, he testifies, she’s made his life a living hell — he is constantly in fear of her calling the police on him or taking him to court or worse. “I can’t sleep at night,” he says. “I can’t deal with this stress. It’s taking a toll on me. This has been the worst year of my life.” He says he doesn’t know exactly what he’s done to make Grayson hate him so much, but he has a theory: “I really believe she hates me simply because I’m gay.”

Culminating nearly a year of hellish back and forth, Judge Castellanos throws out Grayson’s restraining order against Morrison and makes his order against her permanent. That doesn’t solve all his problems, of course. As Castellanos points out, all she’s doing is signing a piece of paper that allows him to call the cops or nab his neighbor on a contempt-of-court charge if she violates the order. “We can’t be there,” the judge lectures, “to prevent you all from yelling at each other.”

Which, of course, is a distinct possibility. The feuding neighbors, after all, still have to live almost side by side.


Intermission III: Every Dog Has His Day

Getting court protection from that nasty neighbor or your boyfriend’s busybody ex is as simple as T-R-O. That stands for temporary restraining order and, as its name suggests, it offers the same protection as a “permanent” three-year restraining order, except that it lasts only a few weeks — until someone like Judge Julie gets to hear both sides of the story. Judges often get criticized for handing out TROs like Halloween candy, but most would simply rather err on the side of caution. That’s according to Hannah Sims, a Berkeley family law attorney who often deals with such cases. “It’s very easy to get a [temporary] restraining order,” says Sims, who also has served as a volunteer mediator for Judge Conger’s court. She points out that if people allege that someone has inflicted violence or threatened violence — which nearly everyone does — they can ask the judge to waive the $276.50 filing fee.

A growing number of Alameda County folks have turned to the courts to seek protection from neighbors, former friends and lovers, customers, and acquaintances. Over the two-fiscal-year period ending July 2002 (FY 2002-03 stats aren’t yet available), the number of civil-harassment filings in Alameda County jumped from 1,364 to 1,660, a 22 percent increase.

It’s unclear exactly why restraining orders are on the rise. Superior Court Judge Barbara Miller, who has overseen the Hayward restraining-order calendar for many years, hypothesizes that it has something to do with what she calls the Judge Judy factor. “Because of all the Judge Judy shows,” she reasons, “people think they can come to court and get restraining orders for almost anything.”

Getting a TRO is one thing; getting the three-year version is quite another. Barbara Miller, who will soon be presiding judge in charge of the Alameda County Superior Court, says a plaintiff must offer “clear and convincing evidence”– just one step below the “beyond a reasonable doubt” hurdle for criminal convictions — to get a permanent civil-harassment restraining order. For the recipient, Miller says, there are serious ramifications. The restrained parties can’t own guns, and their names are added to the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, a statewide database accessible to local police. At their most basic level, restraining orders restrict and penalize someone’s movement or speech in a free society. This is most troubling in a case like Morrison’s.

And while most people ask for court protection out of real fear for their safety, a lot of these cases don’t belong in the courts at all. Spats between neighbors living in close proximity also pose logistical problems, since by law the restrained has to stay one hundred yards away from the restrainer. The judge can tweak the order a bit to accommodate some situations, but this invites confusion.

For all of these reasons, Judge Conger refers as many feuding neighbors as she can to private mediators. But getting neighbors to agree to mediation is yet another challenge. It’s strictly voluntary, and not everyone wants to do it, according to Sarah Calderon, executive director of the Berkeley Dispute Resolution Service. “Some folks,” she says, “just want their day in court.”


Act 4: Feuding Neighbors!

Old Ladies with Guns

The judge calls the case of Holmes v. Johnson. A frail-looking gray-haired old lady wearing her stocking cap indoors and holding what looks like a Kleenex box stands up. That must be the victim. Poor lady. Maybe she needs the Kleenex in case she cries. Meanwhile, a portly man in his late forties or early fifties weighing maybe two hundred pounds also heads toward the bench. Bastard. What kind of man picks on a sweet little old lady?

Wait. There’s something weird here. He’s standing next to the “Plaintiff” plaque. He’s trying to get a restraining order against the old lady, his next-door neighbor in West Oakland. Judge Conger turns to Constance Johnson, this sixty-year-old alleged antagonist, and cites the accusations against her — that she has pulled a knife and a gun on Holmes.

“That is not true,” Johnson says quietly.

“Do you have a knife?” the judge asks.

Johnson replies that she has a kitchen knife.

“Do you have a gun?”

“Oh yes,” Johnson says, nodding, “but he’s never seen my gun. … I’ll tell you what’s really going on here.”

Then she launches into a mumbled soliloquy. She says something about Mr. Holmes blocking her driveway, pimping a mother and daughter, and dope usage. After Conger presses her, she admits that the police came out and arrested her — not him. Holmes is getting antsy to tell his story, which Conger already knows from his written affidavit. But hey, this is showtime.

“What she did is she came down her steps with a knife. I was putting my garbages out,” Holmes testifies. “She’s lying.”

Holmes tries to tell the judge that the old woman also has threatened his girlfriend with a knife. His elderly neighbor has problems. “She’s an alcoholic,” he tells the court.

“Now, he goin’ to get sued for that,” Johnson says.

Conger interrupts angrily. “One of the rules of this court is no cross talk.” The judge goes on to ask Johnson if she has any problem with the court issuing her an order to stay away from her neighbor.

“Can I show you something?” the woman asks. She hands some papers to the bailiff, who passes them along to the judge. After glancing at them, Conger announces that she is looking at a police report that says the old woman had a fall in which she fell on her face.

“Drunk, probably,” the neighbor mutters.

“They noted alcohol on your breath, ma’am,” Conger says with irritation, and proceeds to rule for the plaintiff.


There you have it, folks. That’s about all the time we have left. Hope everybody enjoyed the show. As Johnny Carson would say, it’s “weird, wild stuff.”

Yessirree, Jerry Springer Court has it all, my friends: Comedy. Tragedy. Insanity. This here’s the crazy world we live in, but no need to pick up the remote. It’s all right here in our little East Bay courtroom. Stranger than fiction, ladies and gentlemen, stranger than fiction.

Now you good folks take care, and be sure and stay outta trouble. We wouldn’t want you coming back to visit as one of our headlining acts.

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