The District Court judge scratched himself. The dandruff fell like snow from his head onto his greasy coat collar. He spoke with me before the hearing, saying that he could find no legal grounds that could assure justice in these cases. That was why he scratched himself in confusion and irritation. Then it was nine o’clock. The two lay magistrates stepped into the room, a captain A. D., who clicked his heels together; and a shoe merchant who was so obese that he nodded his whole upper body in greeting.
Then they went out the door, the District Court judge leading in his robe, which shimmered a little from grease and dust. You couldn’t say that the robe increased the grace and dignity of the judge, but at least it covered his jacket, vest and rumpled trousers.
“Twelve cases today,” observed the captain, who felt the necessity of beginning a conversation.
The District Court judge cursed to himself: “Yes, twelve cases and thirty witnesses. That can last all afternoon and even more cases have been pushed back. And furthermore . . .”
The corpulent Herr didn’t appear to be feeling well. Either he had lost last night in the city, or his digestion was upset. Hardly any other ailments could disrupt his quiet existence. Finally he put the documents under his arm and slouched uncomfortably over to the courtroom. The lay magistrates were behind him, and I, as the court recorder came last, with my minutes.
When I have the sheets of paper in front of me and my quill poised to record the relevant and eternally just words of the law, I am always overcome with the awareness of being a necessary limb of society and of fulfilling my duty as a civil servant and as a human being. This awareness should have lifted me up. Yet, unfortunately it was not able to. I was much more annoyed at fulfilling my duty and had to laugh about it. It was possible that my colleagues desired to make it their career, and might even feel some loyalty to it. That aspiration failed with me.
The name of the District Court judge, which I had to write well over a hundred times a week, bored me to such an extent, that I squiggled a few bizarre images on it in order to at least change this one line a little.
The hearings began as usual with cases of begging, vagrancy, petty theft and other starvation related crimes. Old, unkempt women were brought in, in tattered, dirty dresses, homeless prostitutes, whom the policeman on the street had seen, vagrants, pick-pockets, hoodlums.
Before each case the judge would mechanically read the court rulings, include personal information and previous convictions, out of which always emerged once again: starvation, doing time, and once more starvation.
I remained hard and bored with this worn out old song, hard like the judge, hard like the policeman, who administered the required oath. Only once in a while was there a man standing behind the barrier, one whose strength did not yet appear to be broken, one with broad shoulders who through starvation and imprisonment had once more slipped into a miserable dog’s life. And it occurred to me in fearful amazement quite strange that this fellow had not already leapt over the barrier, torn the minutes out of my hands and beat the wobbly head of the judge with it.
And while my quill once more monotonously scribbled, I pondered in a contemplative way the question of whether I would in the end finally disinherit myself completely by perpetrating some riotous act to avenge my meaningless existence. I once almost wished this fame for myself. But perhaps it was the fear of punishment that took away some of my desire for this original plan.
All of these people seemed to be struck by lunacy; no reasonable words could be brought out of them. They didn’t care at all whether they were sentenced for three months or six. They simply howled in despair. When the judge questioned them, they didn’t think it worth the effort to answer him. Instead they just put their broad cracked hands in front of their faces, sobbed and whimpered.
For example, there was a mother. She had stolen an apple twelve times in a row in the market place. The judge asked her if she had eaten the apple right away. Then it would have been simple touch “hand to mouth” robbery and it would have gone better for her. But no, each time she had taken the apple back home, stored it and fed her children with it later. So it was theft, genuine common theft according to paragraph two hundred and forty-two.
Then the judge asked her if she ever intended to steal apples again. If she did not intend to steal apples then it would be a one-time crime and not as serious for her as well. But she absolutely refused to promise not do it again. She just shook her head and began to howl.—so each time she had not wanted to do it again, but had done it anyway? She nodded and howled.—
So, a confession, “admission of guilt” which entailed a combined punishment, with increased punishment, the heaviest possible.
“Do you have anything else to say in your defense?” asked the judge in closing.
Apparently not, she just whimpered. Upon which we removed to the council chamber.—
In the meantime the District Court judge was feeling better and more comfortable.
“Well, thank God”, he said. “Half the morning is already gone. Now we can at last with good conscience have breakfast.”
With that he pulled out his mangled morning biscuit and chewed comfortably with full, smacking cheeks. The lay magistrates dedicated themselves to their breakfasts as well, the captain to his ham sandwich, the shoe merchant to his sausage.
I sat down at a writing desk removed some distance away from the council table, where I listened to this legal discussion for training purposes. I would have liked breakfast myself, but that would not do for an attorney.
“Now Herr Captain,” asked the District Court judge, as he contentedly ate. “What should I give the little woman?”
The captain had no idea what the little woman deserved and cleared his throat.
“The case isn’t that serious,” he said finally.
“No, it’s not that serious,” confirmed his colleague.
“How would it be then, if I said a week?” the judge proposed.
With great agility he gave the legal basis for it and asked whether the Herren magistrates had a counter proposal? No, naturally they didn’t know any counter proposal to offer the judge. So it remained a week in prison.
As the woman received her sentence and was then led away, it appeared to be too much for her. She collapsed completely and whimpered like a young hound.
Then came other familiar scenes—the further appearance of so called pauperism, which is in general very old and never changes much.
“There have always been the poor and the rich.” Maintain our religious doctrines very correctly. But then again, there is also social reform . . .