The son of an Armenian immigrant, Pete was born in Beirut, Lebanon and came to the US when he was two months old. His life is an American success story.
During my years as a reporter, I covered a number of trials, outcomes of trials, arrests and arraignments, and even decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court. But I had never spent a morning in one courtroom, sitting in on the daily grind of hearings that make up the hard work of one judge.
That is why I decided to visit the courtroom of my childhood friend, Socrates Peter Manoukian. He has been a Superior Court Judge in Santa Clara County for two decades. Seeing the kinds of cases that come before him, day after day, was definitely an eye-opener.
Judge Manoukian with, in the foreground, Georgeann O'Connell-Wiles, C.S.R., court reporter, and, at the far desk, Deputy Clerk Lynn Thode.
These cases rarely make news. But some of them might be the preliminaries to terrible crimes: people who threaten, sometimes follow through. People who seek protection are sometimes obsessed and they sometimes become violent.
Judge Manoukian's Civil Harassment hearings, are a sort of small claims court for interpersonal dysfunction. The court was designed by the state legislature to allow those seeking orders of protection--not associated with domestic violence--to do so without the necessity of hiring legal counsel.
But as Judge Manoukian pointed out, the level of violence involved in Civil Harassment cases has risen in recent years. It certainly appeared to me that there are more than a few cases in his courtroom that would make any reasonable person wonder why someone in the case had not been arrested.
A couple of cases stood out. In one, a woman whose partner and son had been murdered, was receiving death threats. Since she had been a protected witness in the case and has four young children, she was rightly concerned for her safety. She knew the name of the person threatening her and had documented the calls and threats. I had to wonder: where was the justice system, in another jurisdiction, that had used her as a witness? Why were they not helping her now?
Judge Manoukian not only gave her the order she sought, he sealed her file for her safety. If I were in her shoes, I would take my shoes far, far away--but it appeared her financial resources were limited. Judge Manoukian gave her help in finding safe housing, but once again, one had to wonder: where were the police and the DA?
In a second case, one teen had confronted another teen at school and Teen Number Two knocked down Teen Number One, beat her badly, had a friend capture video of the assault on a cell phone, and posted the beating on YouTube, with a death threat.
Since the girls are minors, the injured girl's mother came to court seeking the protection order for her daughter. She was frustrated that the girl who had assaulted her daughter was still walking around free. Why hadn't she been arrested? Why wasn't the school system helping her? Why wasn't the teen being prosecuted?
The system may not be working well, perhaps, because it is overwhelmed. Or, perhaps, because it has always been difficult to judge what someone intends to do, under the law. Or, perhaps, because we all have so many devices today, with which we can instantly communicate our anger and frustration, that the worst among us are using them for truly vile behavior, only some of which is illegal enough to face prosecution.
In one case, my old friend put on his most severe face and said: "Both of you should knock it off." The two people looked away, seemingly abashed. In several others, the potential for violence seemed to fade in the harsh light of a courtroom.
But others worry me, as I suspect they worry him. Many see only the glamor of his robes and the prestige that goes with his office and miss seeing the hard work. The files he must read aren't just files--they are the lives of those standing before him, and those lives can be at risk.
He just smiles when I ask him about this and thanks those who help him every day. On the day I was there his staff included, Deputy Clerk Lynn Thode, who was filling in for his regular clerk, and Georgeann O'Connell-Wiles, his court reporter. His bailiff is Sheriff's Deputy Kristin Anderson, and though she's small and slender, she keeps her eyes always on the safety of those in the courtroom.
Reporting on these stories, I left them behind each night as I headed home. That's not quite true for a judge. The violence that sits just below the surface of modern life always has the potential to erupt.
Oh, and one more thing: he's a Republican in Northern California. Now that is dangerous!
I know he could make a lot more money in the private practice of law and, in that case, would have, quite probably, a much easier life. Thus, I have to say, to Judge Manoukian and all of his colleagues, as we do to those in uniform: Thank you, for your service.
The Old Courthouse in San Jose, California, where Judge Manoukian serves. It was built in the 19th century and almost demolished in 1966. But when the wrecking ball hit the building, it bounced off. Thus, this historic structure was saved: a lesson in preservation, if there ever was one.
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