The days when judges on horseback traveled dirt tracks and forded streams to dispense justice in remote parts of Fairfax County are long gone, but every Friday, Judge Thomas Rothrock or another member of the Fairfax District Court bench gets in a car and heads onto the Dulles Access Road to hear cases in Herndon Town Court.
The Herndon court, and similar courts in Vienna, Falls Church and Fairfax City, are vestiges of the days when each town had its own judge to enforce local laws.
Now, regular county court judges travel to these small "satellite" courts to adjudicate traffic and misdemeanor cases, but, at least in Herndon, some of their small-town flavor remains.
On a typical day, between 100 and 200 cases may appear on the Herndon docket, a large percentage of them traffic cases and misdemeanor offenses, such as simple assault, shoplifting and indecent exposure.
Last Friday, the day began at 8:30 a.m. with prosecutor Bruce Blanchard, a deputy town attorney, talking with Herndon police officers about their cases and listening to defendants who wanted to negotiate with the prosecutor.
In one case, a burly young man had been charged with assault. But Blanchard convinced one of the complainants that it would be better to drop the charges in return for a $500 "peace bond" the defendant would forfeit if there were future incidents. "You got something hanging over his head that's worse than the fine," Blanchard said. "If he does it to someone else, I can guarantee you we're not going to drop the charge."
At 9:30, Rothrock entered the courtroom. There was the usual pomp as the black-robed judge approached the bench. Bailiff Arthur Bridcott, a lean, white-haired lawman with a five-pointed deputy sheriff's star and a belt filled with bullets, ordered the crowd of 100 to stand.
But instead of being placed at a bench overlooking the court, the judge's chair was at the long table used by members of the Town Council and Planning Commission. Behind him was a four-foot-wide depiction of the Herndon town seal, and alongside were pictures of the Dulles International Airport terminal and the mournful face of Cmdr. William Herndon, a Navy officer who went down with his ship in 1857 when it was on an expedition.
The judge's chambers, the room that judges use to consult with attorneys and don their robes, consists of a couple of armchairs in an otherwise deserted basement.
But Rothrock said he enjoys hearing cases in Herndon. "It's a nice change to get out of the courthouse" at the county judicial complex in Fairfax City. "Things are a maybe a little more relaxed."
Bailiff Kenny Haines agreed. "The people that come in here, like the attorneys, think it's more relaxed. People come in and say, 'Hey, how are you doing? How's the golf?' . . . It's a little difficult for me to get them to wake up and realize this is a court we're in."
Most of the cases involve traffic offenses. One neatly dressed man told the judge that he did not deserve a ticket for running a stop sign because the sign was too far from the intersection. Although he did come to a complete stop before the sign, he said, by the time he drove up to the intersection it looked as if he had driven straight through.
Rothrock agreed. "The court has reasonable doubt," he said. "You're free to go."
Another driver with a stop sign ticket brought up the same argument, and then another did so. "If it works for somebody, then everyone else tries it," Blanchard said afterward. Commented Rothrock, "If you find one not guilty, you're pretty much committed."
Another man was accused of leaving the scene of an accident, but he protested that any damage involved was trivial. When the owner of the damaged car told him repairs cost her $180, he replied, eyes wide, "One hundred eighty dollars for two inches of rubber? Oh, they're ripping you off."
But some cases are more serious. One woman was led away in handcuffs to spend 48 hours in jail after the judge found her guilty of driving while intoxicated for the second time. One of two trials in the afternoon involved an allegation of embezzlement.
Court Clerk Wanda Cole, who collects fines in a small back room, tries to take money with a smile. "You really kind of need to defuse them a little . . . . They get very irate. You just try to be nice to them," Cole said. She accepts Visa, MasterCard, Choice and personal checks.
Said prosecutor Blanchard, "I think a lot of people come to court and they're scared. I think all of us try to tell people when they come up and are upset about a speeding ticket or are crying, 'Those aren't the most serious things in the world.' "
But this personal touch may get more difficult to provide as the area's population grows. This year the Herndon and Vienna town courts together have had more than 17,000 cases on their dockets, compared with just less than 15,000 in 1986. An increasing number of cases involve out-of-town motorists. There are a number of restaurants and bars in the area, and court officers say they are noticing increased numbers of drunk driving cases.
"Things are always out of control traffic-wise," Rothrock said. "Right turn on red's a joke. Nobody stops . . . . There's very aggressive driving; everyone's so frustrated . . . . I don't see we're doing much good."
Said Blanchard, "I don't think I've made any difference in the traffic problems in Northern Virginia."
Bailiff Bridcott said that he has noticed changes. When he started part-time work as a bailiff after his retirement as a police officer eight years ago, only 30 to 40 people would come to court on a given day. This fall, full-time bailiffs from the Sheriff's Department were added to help with the crowds.
The forms given out to those who want to represent themselves are now printed in Korean, Vietnamese and Spanish. "I don't even know where to sign them," Bridcott said with a smile. "When they tell me I've got to learn the language, I'm going to quit."