When I was a young prosecutor at Juvenile Court, from time to time someone in the office would have to run an errand to the Justice Center in downtown Cleveland. When he or she asked if anyone needed anything from there, a colleague would occasionally say, "Yeah, bring me back a cup of justice." An old joke, but it usually brought a chuckle, or at least a smile. If only justice could be poured into a cup and taken wherever it was needed.
I've now spent most of my career at the Justice Center. The brown, squared-off tower at the corner of Lakeside and Ontario has been my professional home for more than 20 years. It is not beautiful; it is functional. It is not new; in some ways it feels old, even ancient, although since its opening in 1976 it has been around for only a brief fraction of the life of the city. It is not perfect, but it is aspirational.
Those who built and named the building were aspirational, after all, even daring. The Justice Center! A center for justice. A place for the rule of law to be interpreted, and applied, and made clear to all. A place where people from across Cleveland and Cuyahoga County could seek the peaceful, efficient and just resolution of their disputes. A place of abiding and committed public service. Most of those who work at the Justice Center are, I believe, guided by those ideals, even when we fall short; I know I am.
As a prosecutor and now as a magistrate, though, I must admit that I'm still somewhat in awe of this place. Every weekday, many thousands of people come and go. (Some, taken into custody, don't go quite as soon as they might have expected or hoped). They come here, all of them, because of what this place is. They come because of the essential function our society ascribes to it. The Justice Center is, or should be, a place of solutions, of resolutions, of closure and yes, of justice. From the smallest of Small Claims cases (including, legendarily, a lawsuit over one particularly nasty doughnut) and the most minor and soon-forgotten of traffic offenses, up to multimillion-dollar lawsuits and death penalty cases, they all come through the Justice Center, home to both the Cleveland Municipal Court and the Court of Common Pleas of Cuyahoga County.
The ancient Romans defined the goal of justice as Suum cuique tribuere ?" to render to each person his or her due. For the guilty, correction; for the innocent, vindication; for the wronged, compensation. Those obligations remain with us even now, however imperfectly we perceive or achieve them. Over the past 23 years working at the Justice Center, I've seen stupidity, criminality and cowardice here, but I've also seen wisdom, honesty and courage. I've seen defendants and victims, judges and magistrates, prosecutors and public defenders and lawyers of all kinds, and police officers and bailiffs and interpreters and court staff and witnesses and jurors ?" God bless the jurors, especially, in their vitally-important service! ?" and so many others. Each of them has left, perhaps only for an hour or a day, some small mark on this building, this place of justice, even if we can't see it. Many are themselves, in turn, marked by the building and what happens here. I've heard laughter and I've seen tears, as cases from the silly to the heart-breaking are tried in the hushed, wood-paneled courtrooms before jurists who have seen it all and, despite the ineluctable tug of cynicism and despair, still try to do justice, still try to do some good if any good at all can be done. Behind them the flags bear silent witness, symbols of the authority of the nation and the state, reminders of the multitudes who may never come to court but whose business is nevertheless being done, faithfully, day in and day out, here at the Justice Center.
Earl Warren, the late great Chief Justice of the United States, wrote, "Where there is injustice, we should correct it; where there is poverty, we should eliminate it; where there is corruption, we should stamp it out; where there is violence, we should punish it; where there is neglect, we should provide care; where there is war, we should restore peace; and wherever corrections are achieved we should add them permanently to our storehouse of treasures." The Justice Center is one of those storehouses, I believe, but only if those who work here strive to make it so.
I have my own opinion as to whether this remarkable pile of stone, concrete, wood, metal and glass should be torn down or upgraded. You'll read more on that topic in this issue from people far more knowledgeable about it than I.
But for me, come what may, the Justice Center is the place where I have learned more of, and given more for, law in the public service than anywhere else in my life. For all its obvious flaws, for all its many faults, for as unfortunately often as those within it have fallen short of the American ideal of justice, it has helped make me who I am, and for that I am and always will be grateful
William Vodrey is a magistrate of Cleveland Municipal Court. This essay reflects his views and not necessarily those of the Court. He has been a CMBA member since 2012. He can be reached at (216) 664-3643 or firstname.lastname@example.org.