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Justice Junkies

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Judges and other Dirksen Federal Building staffers hosted a surprise birthday party in early June for a courthouse fixture--Lou Rubin, one of the city's last court buffs. He was turning 90.

Rubin was thrilled but not surprised by the party. Like most court buffs, he prides himself on his talent for gathering intelligence. When he wasn't watching trials these past two decades, he was often gabbing with court staffers in the hallways, firming his grip on the building's grapevine. He told me about the surprise party before the invitations went out.

Rubin started watching trials in the Dirksen Building, at Dearborn and Adams, in the early 1980s, joining a group of about 30 retirees, almost all of them male, who visited the courthouse daily. Another 25 or so would turn out for headline trials. Buffs have frequented the building for as long as anyone can remember, but they were in their heyday in the 80s: one buff published a newsletter about the happenings in the courthouse, and Judge Prentice Marshall hosted an annual holiday party for the buffs that was a noted event in the building.

But most of the buffs have died, and no new retirees have replaced them. Only two regulars remain--Rubin and George Berkowitz, who's in his 80s. "It's the end of an era," federal appellate judge Ilana Rovner told me gloomily at Rubin's party.

Chief district judge Charles Kocoras told the 50 or so people at the party that when he was a rookie prosecutor here in the early 1970s he preferred that the buffs not attend his trials--he didn't want any more witnesses than necessary to his mistakes. But as he grew more experienced and confident, he said, "I was dying for them to watch my trials. I would get the word out to them--Kocoras is on trial, come watch--because I wanted their approval." He said the buffs were astute and frank. "They knew if you were doing good or doing bad, and they weren't going to BS you about that."

Judge Rovner then spoke of her early days as a prosecutor at the Dirksen. She'd befriended the court watchers in the early 70s when she was clerking for a judge in the building, and they turned out en masse for her first trial as a prosecutor, filling two rows of the gallery. She said she was "terrified" of blundering during the trial, but the presence of the buffs buoyed her. She asked her first witness to state his name and spell it for the court reporter. Then she turned slightly, and out of the corner of her eye she saw one buff--the lone woman--giving her the V for victory.

This buff had done clerical work for a law firm during the Depression, Rovner had told me on another occasion. The woman had always wanted to be a lawyer, but her family's financial needs had prevented her from attending law school. "It was very funny when she gave me the victory sign, but now I get tears whenever I think about her," Rovner said. "I was doing what she had always wanted to do."

The buffs "really kept you on your toes," Rovner told me. "They were our critics in the same way that art and music and theater have critics. You wanted to do everything right in part because someone was watching. They really cared that justice was done. There's no question that they loved the drama, but most of all I think they cared about democracy and justice."

Rovner blamed the decline in the buff population on the "salacious and horrendous" offerings of Court TV, saying, "Rarely will anything in the federal courts come close to what people can watch from the comfort of their own homes while munching on potato chips and Coca-Cola."

At Rubin's party the guest of honor listened bashfully at the front of the room, hands clasped behind his back, as the judges praised him and told their buff tales. He's lanky, with an unusually upright posture for a 90-year-old, and he navigates the hallways without a cane. He has silver hair and heavy-lidded, watery blue eyes. As always at the courthouse, he was dressed in sport coat and tie.

A native of Long Island, Rubin lived in Florida before settling in Chicago in the 50s. He never wanted for money--his family had prospered from hotels his father built in Miami, and he speculated in the stock market. A fellow speculator introduced him to court watching when he was about 70, and he quickly got hooked. He became a shrewd prognosticator of verdicts, a skill he credits to his practice of studying jurors during trials. During trial recesses lawyers would quiz him on what seemed to be swaying the jurors and what wasn't. "You had lawyers getting three, four hundred thousand dollars to try civil suits," he told me, "and they were taking my advice."

Rubin used to know the courthouse like the back of his hand. Now he occasionally forgets which judge's courtroom is on which floor. He allowed that his mind sometimes wanders during a trial. "But that's true of judges also," he said. He still finds trials intriguing, "but they can be boring too." When they are he takes the elevator to the 16th floor and reads the newspaper in the library.

Librarian Gretchen Van Dam announced at the party that a plaque with Rubin's name would soon be mounted on a wall in the library's newspaper section in recognition of his daily visits. "We've come to rely on him for news of the building," she said. "He lets us know what trials are heating up. He lets us know what judges are heating up." Everyone laughed, except Rubin, who blushed. "Judges don't heat up," he told me later when I asked him about Van Dam's remark. "Most of them stay calm, and they're outstanding."

Judges and lawyers claim they value the buffs for their candor. But Rubin has always recognized that truth can be abrasive. The assessments he gave lawyers of their performances were usually well lacquered, and he rarely criticized a judge. "Judges are like anybody else," he told me. "They like to be patted on the back." He declined to tell me his favorite judge for fear of hurting other judges' feelings. Were there any bad judges in the building? "None that I know of," he said. "Some are more brainy than others." He smiled. "That's a good answer, isn't it?"

While Rubin basked in the limelight at his party, the other regular buff, George Berkowitz, scowled in a chair on one side of the room. Berkowitz enjoyed only the cake. He and Rubin are fans of the courthouse but not of each other. "Rubin sucks up to the people and they make a party for him--ahh," he told me, waving his hand in disgust. "I don't even consider him a court watcher. He just kills time hanging in the library. When he goes to court he sits there ten minutes, and then he disappears."

When I asked Rubin about Berkowitz he told me, "He's not a friend of mine. He comes from a different class of people."

Berkowitz has a full mustache and a broad forehead that looks even broader because his eyebrows have fled the jurisdiction. He wears his hair parted in the middle and greased back. Like Rubin, he has large ears--maybe it's a buff prerequisite--and like Rubin, he dresses in a sport coat and tie when he comes to court. Berkowitz and Rubin both live alone and take a bus to the courthouse. That sums up their similarities.

Berkowitz is a gruff buff, a born-and-raised west-sider with nothing slick about him besides his hair. The verdicts he gives regarding courtroom performances are unsanded, unvarnished, and often unrequested. Because his voice is deep and loud--his nickname is "the Boomer"--lawyers and judges get his appraisals just by being in the neighborhood. At the party Berkowitz told me he considered the Dirksen's judges "very honest, very qualified" overall. But then, oblivious to or unconcerned about the judges within earshot, he boomed, "Some judges are just coasting along--they're not doing their load of the work."

Berkowitz declined to reveal his age, but he said he first attempted to watch a trial in the early 1930s, when he was 13. It was a murder trial at the Cook County Criminal Courthouse, at 26th and California. He walked the two miles from his home to the courthouse, arriving during a recess. Before the action resumed, a deputy told him he was too young to watch and made him leave. Two years later he walked to 26th Street for another murder trial and got to stay.

After high school Berkowitz worked nights as a photoengraver. "And what the hell ya gonna do in the daytime?" Watching trials seemed as good a pastime as any, and the price was right. He often went straight to work from 26th Street. When he retired 20 years ago he switched to the Dirksen Building, largely because it was easier to reach using public transportation.

The acrimony between Rubin and Berkowitz doesn't get in the way of their buffing. The Dirksen Building is big enough for both of them. And they have different tastes. Rubin prefers civil trials. "I can learn something from civil suits," he told me. "But criminal cases--you seen one, you seen 'em all. Oh, there are some that are interesting. There was one with international thieves paying for suites in London and doing a bunch of swindles. But mostly they're monotonous. The judges don't like them either. Too many of the cases have to do with narcotics. The judges get dope cases all day long. Every day there must be 10 or 15 or 20 of them. I'm exaggerating. But every day there's dope cases."

Berkowitz finds civil cases "very boring." He prefers a good criminal trial, like the recent one in which white supremacist Matthew Hale was convicted of soliciting, unsuccessfully, the murder of one of the Dirksen Building's judges. Berkowitz sometimes watches sentencings too, though they tend to depress him. "When you see the defendant or his relatives crying, it's not a happy thing," he told me. "You feel for these people, even though you don't know 'em." But he said there are lighter moments at sentencing too. He recalled watching one judge give an elderly defendant a long term. "So the defendant said to the judge, 'I'm 65 years old. I don't think I can do that much time.' So the judge said, 'Do the best you can.'"

Berkowitz can't understand why a younger crop of buffs hasn't sprouted up. "What else are ya gonna do after you retire?" he said. "Sit home and argue with your wife all day, if you got a wife?" Retirees "don't know how exciting this can be. It's not the excitement of whether the person's going to be found guilty or not, because as a rule, the defendant doesn't win. It's the excitement of being there. Of course it gets boring sometimes too, but you can't expect every case to be exciting."

Long ago, trials, especially criminal trials, attracted many spectators in Chicago and elsewhere. In the late 19th century judges and lawyers began to speak of spectators as obstacles to justice. In 1893, on the eve of the opening of the county criminal courthouse at Dearborn and Hubbard, the Chicago Herald noted that the galleries in the new courtrooms would be much smaller than they'd been in the previous courthouse, none holding more than 100 spectators, in keeping with the wishes of most judges and lawyers. The Herald quoted one Chicago lawyer as saying that many verdicts had been decided "more by what the audience seemed to want than by what came from the witness stand and bench." The paper added, "Some of the most eminent members of the bar predict the time [is] at hand when in the trial of a case, particularly a criminal one, no spectators at all will be permitted."

Since then the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed the importance of public trials. Nevertheless, trials today usually unfold before empty or nearly empty galleries. The benches do fill up for sensational cases, but mostly with reporters and sketch artists. There haven't been any regular court buffs in years at 26th Street; typically the only spectators there are relatives of the defendant or the victim, and often none of them come. And now the Dirksen's galleries are usually empty too.

Judge Prentice Marshall--who hosted the holiday parties for the Dirksen buffs until he retired in 1996--once told a reporter he was grateful for the buffs because there was "nothing quite as deadly as trying a case in a totally empty courtroom." The presence of an audience, he said, conveyed to the defendant, the jurors, and the lawyers "that there are people out there who are interested in what goes on." Vacant gallery benches also send a message.

The 77-year-old Marshall died in Florida on May 24, just ten days before Rubin's party. Before he died he wrote a birthday note for Rubin, which Judge Kocoras read at the party. "I wish I could join you today but my traveling days are over," Marshall wrote. "I have always admired the Buffs. I believe all of you make a real contribution to the administration of justice. Stay well--keep buffing. God speed."

Neither Rubin nor Berkowitz plans to quit buffing soon. "It feels like a second home," Berkowitz said of the Dirksen Building. Rubin told me he'll keep coming to the courthouse "till I die, I guess. I got no other place to go."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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