Manatee County Courthouse

Manatee County Courthouse

In 1978, when I was in third grade, I went on a school field trip that forever changed the trajectory of my life.  I boarded a long yellow school bus with my teacher and classmates and headed to a mystical place, the likes of which I had only seen on TV or in the movies – the county courthouse.  As the bus dropped us off in front of the massive brick building (which was three stories tall, or practically a skyscraper in my hometown), we scurried into formation on the manicured green lawn.  Rows of gray stone steps, and four gleaming white Greek columns, led to the courthouse’s double doors.

Once inside, I immediately felt the cool comfort of central air conditioning, a luxury I did not enjoy living on a farm.  Deputy Sheriffs with crisply starched, forest green uniforms stood like sentinels against the wall, with shiny five-point stars affixed to their chests.  Like John Wayne, they wore leather holsters on their sides.  I marveled at the rows of gold bullets lining their belts and the .38 caliber pistols peeking out of their holsters.

To the sound of manual typewriters clicking furiously in the surrounding offices, the tour guide led us along the corridors of the courthouse trying, in vain, to explain the administration of justice to a gaggle of giggling 8-year olds.  She led us down a staircase to a dank, dimly lit basement that smelled of urine and cigarette smoke.  A row of small jail cells lined the back wall.   Through the rusting iron bars, I could see scruffy, unkempt men in black and white striped jumpsuits sitting in their cramped cells, with flimsy cots and grimy stainless steel toilets situated only inches away from where they slept. Filled with curiosity, I asked the guide why the men were locked up like lions at the zoo.  She explained they had been arrested the night before for breaking the law and were waiting to see the judge, whatever that meant.

We left the smelly basement, and I took my first ride on an elevator to the top floor.  I felt like I was Captain Kirk, being teleported to a strange new world where I’d never been before.  Quietly, we stepped inside a large courtroom, beaming with sunlight, and filled the wooden pews in the back of the room.  The courtroom reminded me of a cathedral.  It was a beautiful, imposing sight, with its dark paneled walls, high ceiling, and grand chandeliers.  A railing separated our seating area from two finely dressed gentlemen in three-piece suits who were standing behind podiums on opposite sides of the room, passionately addressing the judge — an older man with the peculiar name “Your Honor” — with indecipherable eloquence.

The judge wore a flowing black robe, perched high atop his bench. What appeared to be a small wooden mallet lay before him.  On the wall above his head hung a large seal of the state of Florida. The flags of Florida and the United States flanked the judge. My young heart stirred at the sight of those regal flags, edged with gold fringe and hung on tall poles topped with brass American eagles.

As I sat on the pew in that courtroom and took in the sights and sounds around me, my love of the law took root.