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NYC night court becomes must-see tourist stop

New York City
NEW YORK (AP) -- 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, including once in the off-the-beaten-path-prizing Lonely Planet guide.

"This is something that feels really underground and unique," says Regis St. Louis, the author of the current Lonely Planet New York book.

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.

Much about the experience can be foreign even to those who aren't foreigners. Some arraignments gallop by in a blur of jargon, and certain cases are only-in-New-York by nature.

"To people who live in a little community in Nebraska, what's fare-beating?" asks Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice and former Criminal Court Supervising Judge Charles Solomon, referring to the practice of not paying for rides on public transportation. "It's eye-opening."

Lorraine Cheyne was surprised to see handcuffed people sitting near her in the court audience - that wouldn't happen at home in Ranfurly, New Zealand. The retired property manager was struck by the Manhattan court's unceremonious bustle, chatter and "very casual atmosphere all round" during her late-afternoon visit last fall.

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."

Those stakes are measurable on the faces of audience members hoping to bail out loved ones or discovering they can't. Some spectators develop mixed feelings about being there.

"Had I come to learn something about the American legal system or to watch a wrestling match?" Michael Coto wrote on Triphoney, his New York travel-guide site, after a 2011 visit. But he found a powerful answer as he reflected on what he was watching.

"I started thinking about how this person's rights are protected and what protects somebody in that position, the fact that you can be in there and not have to fend for yourself," he recalled by phone recently.

Some court tourists are legal workers or law students seeking to educate themselves about New York's justice system, or parents or who want to teach their children about it.

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.

After two hours in Manhattan night court, Baumann came away determined to observe a court back in Germany. As she left, Holly Young was in the midst of her own first visit to the Manhattan court, waiting for a friend's arraignment.

Go there for fun? She shook her head.

"That's not something I would want to do," she said. "I don't think this is cool at all."

Join the discussion

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warlock641 March 18 2014 at 8:07 AM

Interesting to see how justice works in an over populated area, all the time. Night court is a slice of the "true" New York City. It's straight business, let's get it done, but let's not make mistakes. That's the best reality show they could ever have, a changing cast every night!

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1 reply
kolblh warlock641 March 18 2014 at 1:50 PM

Is it Justice or Just Us?

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budshort March 18 2014 at 5:02 PM

Judge Harry Stone and Bailiff Bull Shannon?

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ae12wrangell March 18 2014 at 4:06 PM

What I'd like to see in NYC is The Statue of Liberty, The United Nations buildings, and the new World Trade Center.

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belldon10 March 18 2014 at 2:16 PM

New York is the center of the universe'

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frankevitt March 18 2014 at 7:56 AM

wont spend a dime in n.y. anymore the governor Cuomo and the new mayor of n.y. hates everything and every one

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4 replies
Carol March 18 2014 at 6:27 PM

Now Florida retired after an all the rest of my life in NYC. Worked right near this court, an area filled with many incredible experiences and ironic/iconic moments. Articles like this and shows like Mob Wives bring me back to my old haunts, and make me smile. Oh how I dearly miss New York!!!

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Applez64 March 18 2014 at 1:49 PM

What was the reason behind it's conception? What happened in 1907 that made it necessary? Really would like to know.

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2 replies
ae12wrangell Applez64 March 18 2014 at 4:20 PM

1907 was

The year of another financial crash on Wall Street, President T. Roosevelt shakes a record 8,000+ hands in a day, Clyde Fitch's 'Truth' premiered, First Fox Hound Ass'n is formed, Ellis Island - 11,745 immigrants arrive from Europe, first taxi service started,

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miriamisrael1 Applez64 March 18 2014 at 4:46 PM

Google it lol

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Randy March 18 2014 at 12:59 PM

just what the Dr. ordered a dose of night court ! Well if I ever see NY I might just check it out hopefully I won't be on th wrong side of viewing .

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1 reply
kolblh Randy March 18 2014 at 1:42 PM

The Big Apple should be a must on your Bucket List.

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Walter Seltzer March 18 2014 at 10:26 AM

I used to visit night court in the late 1950s / early 1960s when I was in college. Cheap date, always interesting and fun and safe and warm on a cold night.

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TakeHimToCourt March 18 2014 at 10:01 AM

Night Court Shows a Piece of the True New York Life. It Is Reality Not TV or Film.

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