The Courtroom Work Group

Let’s face it; the criminal justice system is a slow and painful place to be stuck in. To help speed up the processing of an ever-increasing number of cases, a certain relationship forms in courtrooms between the main actors in the system, including the judge, defense counsel and prosecutor.

Having recently started an internship program at a nearby Public Defender’s office, I’ve been in court often as of late and let me tell you, it is nothing like what you see on television. What immediately fascinated me was the way the recurring members of the courtroom interacted with each other, as if they were one big happy family. Then, all of a sudden, I remembered a key concept I had learned during my first semester at the university, about the importance of working together in court. This concept is known as the “courtroom work group” and it basically hits the nail on the head in describing what I’ve been witnessing firsthand during my internship.

The courtroom work group concept appears to have been first proposed formally by James Eisenstein and Herbert Jacob in 1977 as part of a study on cases processed through the felony system. To further justify the validity of the concept, legal scholar David W. Neubauer argues:

Every day, the same group of courthouse regulars assembles in the same courtroom, sits or stands in the same places, and performs the same tasks as the day before. The types of defendants and the nature of the crimes they are accused of committing also remain constant. Only the names of the victim, witnesses, and defendants are different.

This is exactly what I see every week in court and I can honestly say that without such an agreement to work together, cases would pile up and the already limited productivity of the justice system would be reduced even further.

Since such a large portion of cases are settled without a trial, you can imagine why it is important to get on good terms with the opposing side if you are concerned with keeping your caseload to a manageable level. As for the judge, working with both sides in a friendly yet professional manner can be instrumental to speeding up the flow of cases though the system and out of your courtroom.


Now for something I didn’t learn in class about the courtroom work group; there are additional members of this “court family” who are just as important as the three main players (judge, prosecution and defense) outlined in most textbooks. This secondary group includes the bailiff of the court, the clerk of the court and the court reporter. In the courtroom I am assigned to, there are actually two bailiffs and what appears to be an assistant to the clerk, so therefore the size of the work group increases yet again.

All of these individuals appear to be very cordial with each other and act as if they were the best of friends. Most defendants and witnesses are obviously not familiar with this type of work environment and I can see the bewilderment on their faces as they overhear jokes being exchanged and weekend events being recapped between groups that (to the general public at least) should be at odds with each other.

So then, what can be made of the courtroom work group? Is it good, is it bad or is it just another part of the system? Well, I can see the benefit of having a relaxed work environment, especially when dealing with felony cases all day long.

Just because members of legally opposing groups get along does not mean that any integrity is being lost. Justice is still being served and a professional manner is continuously maintained throughout any court proceedings. The only thing missing is the sense of cutthroat behavior and anger between sides that is commonly dramatized in fictitious portrayals of the courtroom.

All in all, I am excited to go to the courtroom each week in part because of the kind and friendly people who work within it. It is much like visiting an office of cubicles to quietly observe the unique relationships that materialize when employees spend such a large portion of their lives working in close confines with like-minded individuals.

Certainly, there is a great deal of sociology going on inside offices and the courtroom is no different. After all, we are social creatures and it is a common trait for humans to want to share their work experiences with those who understand. We see this happen with law enforcement officers all the time, to the extent that we’ve created a name for the common bond between them: the blue wall of silence. The courtroom work group is similar to the blue wall in many ways; it’s just much more open and visible to the public.

At the end of the day, the courtroom work group is an essential part of an already overburdened criminal justice system and it has been around for ages, although we didn’t have a name for this concept until the late 1970s.

Overall, I do not see any significant drawback for victims or defendants because of it. As long as the courtroom work group model does not lead to an all-out assembly line of justice, with complete disregard for the individual differences between cases, then I support such a system where justice still remains the number one priority for everyone involved.

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  1. Steve says

    This is a very nice descriptive post of the system. As a young boy, I watched this process you described, as my father often took me into work and seated me in the court room. My father was a Newark, NJ Police Officer, and worked the Cell Block. I hold several degrees, and I am now studying Criminal Justice at the University of Phoenix.

    • says

      Thanks for the comment! Yes, the system is quite interesting. While nowhere near perfect, hopefully we can learn from our observations in order to improve it. Good luck with your studies in CJ!

  2. says

    Are you kidding? This summation of the courtroom workgroup is near total nonsense. There is no real benefit to the loss of an adversarial system where hundreds of thousands of people each year are wrongfully accused and forced into taking please for things that they did not do solely because the system can accommodate the trial process guaranteed to citizens. This glowing report on the courtroom workgroup shows how uninformed our society is about the lack of due process and the inevitable prosecution of innocent people. By assuming that this collegial relationship is beneficial we trade away important rights that are guaranteed to eat citizen. We also remove the discretion that should remain in the hands of the judge and transfer that power to prosecutors who have the authority to pick winners and losers. The recent shootings of prosecutors is an alarming indicator of the open contempt many citizens have come to feel for the officers of the court. Though harm to a prosecutor or any lawyer is completely indefensible citizen shock and outrage about the operations of our courts is entirely appropriate and must be recognized as valid. As we debate the decaying infrastructure of our school systems and highways we must consider the ultimate deterioration of our court system as the courtroom workgroup emerges as the new model. A recent New York Times article paints a much different picture of the courtroom workgroup then this blog post.

    • Silvia Martinez says

      I agree, the courtroom group work only to expedite the process. It seems that the primary goals of the judicial system has been forgotten. Where is the concept of due process? Excuse Mr. Scalice, your point of view and your reflections are too shallow. Do you know that 40% of attorneys admitted that they meet only the 9% of their clients in juvenile cases?

  3. G. Smith says

    Yes the courtroom environment can be intimidating to a person appearing for the first time. Going to court to face the judge and seeing your lawyer and the prosecutor being friendly and cordial. Your first instinct is to question why are they so friendly. The process in the courtroom is like a well oiled machine.

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