It was called a pretty good mix of Fairfax County residents who gathered one recent Saturday for the rare chance to tell the leaders of their legal system what they were thinking.
There was just one rule: Citizens were asked not to use names. Otherwise, the assorted group that filled a courtroom at the Fairfax Judicial Center was told to imagine that the panel of lawyers, judges and legislators were gagged and to fire away.
One "very proud" man wearing frustration on his face took aim at a system that allowed his '63 Chevy to be towed away. "I was so shook up . . . . That's my private car."
Some offered compliments, one man awarding a "gold star" to lawyers and judges for steering defendants toward diversion programs as alternative sentences and running the risk of "appearing soft on crime."
And a few dropped emotional bombshells: "Her liberty was preserved at the cost of her life," a mother said of her 14-year-old daughter whom she futilely tried to have committed before her suicide. "She might not have been saved . . . but wouldn't it be better to detain and evaluate?"
The occasion was a Town Hall Meeting sponsored by the Fairfax Bar Association. "We wanted to let the public know we care what it thinks and that we know we have to be accountable," said Joseph A. Condo, bar president. "We don't like the way the public views us."
As one participant said, "We're here because of the breakdown of your image." Instead of "white knights," she said, the public sees lawyers as "dealers" and feels compromised.
To address these attitudes head-on, the Fairfax Bar invited a cross-section of the community for continental breakfast, trays of rare roast beef for lunch and the chance to talk.
"I don't know if it will bring about any changes," said Rosalie A. Small, director of the bar, "but it will bring about some thought about the process."
For the public, it was an opportunity to see and talk to officials often cast in adversarial roles: the sheriff without his gun, the prosecutor without his indictments, the judge without his black robe.
The panel, which included state Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax), Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr., Sheriff M. Wayne Huggins, Deputy Clerk of the Court Glenn Dryden and Judges Richard J. Jamborsky, Michael P. McWeeny and Michael J. Valentine, listened intently as people said things like:
*"The (court) process was so slow . . . . There has to be something somewhere."
*"He (the judge) was very sympathetic, but . . . "
*"I must reopen that case. It is my life. It is my career . . . ," said one woman who has been trying to resolve a legal issue for years.
*"She never really understood how and why she lost" a case, said one man in the audience about another woman.
Sometimes the panelists took notes, consulted the state code or handed a someone a business card. But mostly they listened. No one on the panel laughed when someone wanted to know why bench conferences during trials couldn't be heard by the public.
At the end of the day, the imaginary "gags" were removed and the panelists responded to the citizens, sometimes clearing up a point or explaining the process.
The public got to hear the judges say things like, "I have been embarrassed . . . felt rotten." And, on the popular topic of how judges are selected, two judges talked about "sweating in Richmond" when they appeared before legislators.
One member of the panel thanked the group "for making us aware of that" and another, without appearing defensive, said "the system isn't perfect, but the system is trying."
Condo, who said afterward that he hopes there will be more town hall meetings: "We started talking to one another." Now, he said, "we've got to do more to teach people how the system works . . . . "