A Mediator’s Morning in Denver County Court
by Patrick Kenney
By Patrick Kenney
Lawyers and court staff hurry purposefully through narrow hallways. Litigants and witnesses, wander from courtroom to courtroom, like uncertain students on the first day of school. Against a background of indistinguishable conversations can be heard snatches of Spanish, Vietnamese, and Russian. An anxious litigant examines an impossibly long list of cases—a 10-page docket—searching for his case.
A mediator clears the metal detector. She bypasses the growing crowd outside the Returns Court and scans the Small Claims Court Docket. Nine trials in the morning, five more in the afternoon—a typical day’s caseload. A walk past each of the three county courts confirms that there are nine more trial settings, a total of 18 trials this morning; all will be tried or settled by noon.
In the next four hours, 18 (or is it 36) stories will be told, each of great importance to those involved. Trials will begin and end, tears will be shed, voices will be raised, stipulations will be signed and settlement checks written. Dozens of citizens will leave this building with a lasting impression of our legal system—perhaps their only first-hand impression, and will tell, and re-tell, the story of their day in court.
A second mediator arrives. He peers into one of the five civil courtrooms. Few empty seats remain. The clerk spots the mediator.
"We have a volunteer mediator from the bar association," she cries out to a group of seven people clustered around her small work area.
Obscured by many other conversations, her words, barely float above the din: "Voluntary . . . no charge . . . help with settlement . . . only if you agree."
A man standing near the clerk responds, "I’ll try it, if he will," indicating his adversary in the opposite corner of the courtroom.
"I guess that’s OK with me," is the uncertain response.
A case file is relayed to the mediator. "Go with the mediator," says the clerk, turning to another case. The judge enters the courtroom. Suddenly the room goes silent. The parties follow the mediator out of the courtroom. The remaining crowd spreads out, once again filling available space.
In another courtroom, counsel stand at the lectern. Each, in turn, announces, "Ready for trial, your honor."
The judge replies, "This case will proceed first and we will begin in 20 minutes. Counsel, perhaps you would like to talk to the mediators while we call other trials?"
An attorney replies, "Your honor, we’ve tried to settle this case." Then, as a diplomatic afterthought, he adds, "But, if the court thinks it might be helpful, we are willing to meet with the mediator."
"Fine," states the judge in even tones.
The mediator leads this group of litigants from courtroom to conference room. This scenario, in different versions, is repeated again and again.
Each side tells their story while the mediators listen. They listen not only to what is legally relevant, but to all of it. Sometimes they listen to the same information again and again. They listen and convey that they have heard and understood the parties’ concerns. The mediator caucuses with each side, a settlement offer emerges, then a counter-offer and a settlement is reached.
The judge briefly interrupts a trial to carefully question the parties and then approves their stipulation. The parties, relieved and suddenly relaxed, express genuine thanks to the court and to the mediators. The two chief protagonists haltingly shake hands as they emerge from the courtroom.
The clerk, seeing the mediator returning, reaches for another file, "They want to talk," the clerk states. The mediator takes the file, and leads the new group to the conference room. And so it goes, until four hours have passed, in what seems like only one.
Then, all the morning’s cases are resolved, either by trial or agreement, and the mediators pass through the metal detector, down the elevator, outside into the sun. They are a little tired and wiser. They share a feeling of satisfaction. They have played an important role in what will likely be the individual litigants first and last experience with the civil justice system—a system that works, and works well.
The DBA/CBA ADR Committee provides pro bono court-mediation through the Volunteer Court Mediation Project— a merry band of highly trained experienced mediators. Patrick Kenney is the chair of the committee and a partner of Kenney & Kall Mediation Services. VCMP will conduct a new volunteer orientation on Jan. 23. For info: Kenneylaw@aol.com