After all that time waiting in line, I never saw a judge, even though I had rehearsed my explanation to make sure it was succinct and clear. I walked through the door, where a man wearing a dark green baseball cap was standing behind a glass-walled counter.
He held out his hand for my citation, and I gave it to him. He passed it to a young woman behind him, who matched it with a file. Then he asked, “Are you paying today?” wrote a date on the slip and handed it back, pointing me to the clerk.
There were other doors down the hallway, but I had seen no one go that way, and everyone in front of me had been in and out within a minute. So I did as he said. I didn’t ask to speak to a judge. I thought I could, but the pressure to keep things moving was used subtly and effectively. Afterward, I felt stupid for not finding more information, fighting back harder, knowing the insider lingo I “should have” known.
It’s easy for me to see how apathy and despair could form for those who regularly deal with the court system. It’s not so much judging as it is processing; less justice than bureaucracy. Move from one line to the next. Wait. Take a step forward. Find your name on a long list of other names–close to a thousand. Turn off your cell phone.
For all the signs with prohibitions (no knives, no guns, no nametag clips, no cell phones), there are very few signs with information. Unless you can afford to hire a lawyer, you’re on your own. Everything happens quickly and relatively efficiently. Stay to the right. Next, please. Everyone is the same, and excuses or justifications have no place here. If you don’t know the system–who to ask, what to ask, how to ask it, where to go–it’s easy to get carried along in the shuffle.
As one woman standing beside me said cynically, when I mentioned that the alphabetical list of cases seemed useless, since we went in based on who arrived first, “There’s a right way and there’s a wrong way, and there’s a government way” to do things.
Pretty soon, arguing begins to look pointless. You’ve been standing in line so long, listening to babies cry and women curse under their breath, and cell phones ring too loudly, and teenagers whine, and all you want is to get it over with so you can leave and feel clean again, even if that means letting some questions go and being washed through with the tide instead of fighting back.
I watched people leaving after they had paid their fines, and all of a sudden some of them were making eye contact with me. Their heads were up, and they were walking with longer steps and swinging their arms. You could read their relief in their body language. They felt free, even though their wallets were lighter than they had been. Even though they might not have received justice, they had escaped.
I know, because that’s how I felt. Free. Even though the ramifications of my speeding will show up on my insurance for the next three years (sigh), I had this deep sense of freedom, of debt paid, of justification. But at the same time, I felt hustled, processed, and very paranoid about driving too fast on the way home. The freedom felt fragile.
It’s kind of like the way I treat grace. As if it’s fragile; no more than mercy, no more than a don’t-look-don’t-tell policy, a quick blink of the eyes while I scoot by the gate. As if grace somehow pulls a fast one on justice, the kind you can only get away with for so long. As if grace and justice are incompatible.
Because on the surface, if grace means no more than a one-time paying of the bill, they are. And the stain lingers.
But on the other hand, if grace means that someone else has taken the dirty, guilty, sin identity and paid all the costs it ever could or would accrue; if in exchange, you’ve been given a new identity that is stain-proof and unchanging, then both justice and grace are satisfied. It’s not fragile; it’s not contingent; and what’s more–it’s free.