They hold court here on the third floor of 1400 N. Courthouse Rd. in Arlington, the first-time runners of red lights and the repeat shoplifters, the anxious rookie lawyers and the seasoned, graying ones, the prosecutors and the sheriff's deputies and the families and the witnesses.

They talk, they pace, they tap their feet nervously on the linoleum. They push the elevator buttons too hard, and too often. Without fail, they litter the floor with squashed cigarette butts and crowd the ashcans with Styrofoam cups.

Shortly after 9 a.m. the voice of Deputy Sheriff Jackie Burke slices into their hundred reveries.

"Traffic court is open on the left, criminal court is open on the right. Please go in and have a seat. Traffic on the left, criminal on the right."

In General District Courtrooms 301 and 302, there will be Justice: About 300 traffic cases and 50 criminal cases pass under the gavels each day. In the corridor, there will be jokes and frenzy, compromise and luck.

"A lot of it gets solved out here before we ever get in the courtroom," says Mina Ketchie, a defense attorney. "Probably 90 percent of the cases are resolved in the hall," says another.

The docket, typed names on yellow paper, hangs on the beige wall. Long wisps of cigarette smoke rise toward the beige ceiling. There are adversaries in this hall, but cigarettes and coffee are preoccupations they can share. And everyone waits.

Near the docket, Donald Hatcher is waiting to appear on drug charges. Donald Hatcher has seen some courtrooms in his day, and he is impressed with Arlington's judges. One of them even thanked Hatcher's court-appointed attorney when Hatcher came for a bond hearing.

"This is about one of the best ones I've ever been in . . . . I never saw any judges who came out and said thank you for representing so-and-so. I didn't even consider him a judge -- he was a human being just like the rest of us."

But even Arlington can make mistakes. "They've got my name up wrong now," Hatcher says, pointing to the docket. "I told the man my name is Donald, not Ronald. I'm kind of just hopin' they goof it and I walk on out of here." His trial is scheduled for May 14.

Defense attorney Nancy Kettelle is waiting, too. She is defending a woman charged with assault and battery, whom she met for the first time this morning. "I had to be here at 9 for her to be assigned to me," Kettelle says. "Now I'll wait till 10:30 or 11, to see if there are any cases for tomorrow morning that need an attorney."

The first day she stepped off the elevator onto the third floor, defense lawyer Margaret O'Donnell recalls, "I was really intimidated; I thought it was going to be a real adversarial system." Now she knows better. "You go to the commonwealth's attorney and say, 'Okay, that's what my guy did and can you give him thus-and-so?' and they say, 'Come on, that's a little unreasonable.' "

O'Donnell says the third floor's chaos doesn't disturb her. "I come from a very large family, so this is like coming home to me."

Some lawyers describe a slightly different sensation: The elevator doors glide open, and there it is -- crowds, smoke, noise, homey as a subway platform. There is nothing like this on the bar exam.

"It is intimidating," said Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Andy Kaufmann. "Yesterday I was in traffic court. We got out about 1 p.m. I had to prepare for a jury trial in two days . This morning, I had nine preliminary hearings scheduled, and I knew nothing about any of them until last night. Then you step off the elevator, and they [the defense lawyers] all pounce."

Kettelle remembers that the first time she rode the elevator to the third floor, she thought, "My God -- all this mass of humanity . . . . What am I supposed to do now?"

Shortly after that, she talked to a new client on the phone, arranged to meet him on the third floor and told him she'd be the one in the dark blue suit. "Of course, it didn't occur to me that every other woman attorney would be wearing a dark blue suit."

This morning, Kettelle is in gray. But O'Donnell is wearing a dark blue suit. So is Ketchie. So, in a manner of speaking, are the cops. Donald Hatcher is in blue denim.

"This is kind of a microcosm of it all," says Kettelle, looking around.

There is stuff besides plea bargains and cigarette smoke in the air of the third floor.

"Rumors," says Detective Joe Horgas, and he does not elaborate.

"The technical term is hearsay, also known as gossip," says lawyer John Hoagland.

Like any community, the third floor has its legends. Deputy Sheriff Burke likes to tell about Jan. 7, a Tuesday, when there were 769 cases, a record, in traffic court. She still has that docket posted in Courtroom 301. She also likes to tell about the time a smartly dressed woman walked right by while she was standing sentry at the courtroom door. "Are you a victim or a defendant?" Burke asked. "No, I'm a prostitute!" the woman said, then flung open the door and marched in.

There are as many descriptions of life on the third floor as there are people to describe it.

"It's sort of a family atmosphere," says Ketchie.

"It's sort of the launching pad," says Burke.

"You'd think it was Hecht's semiannual sale," says Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney John Wasowicz. "It's the boiler room, where you bring all the parties involved in a contested matter together. It's like being in the wings offstage, figuring out the scene before you step into court . . . . It's part a social hour, part a comedy hour, part a plea-bargaining center. The third floor is the great facilitator."