Bedlam often reigns in Department 95 of Los Angeles County Superior Court. Defendants make obscene gestures, throw things, urinate in their clothes and sing songs.
"If you like the trappings of formality, this isn't the place," said Judge Michael D. Pirosh, who last week ended a four-year assignment as Department 95's presiding judge.
Department 95 is the only county court--and one of a handful nationwide--that deals exclusively with mental competency cases, legal experts say. It is where the county decides whether to commit its defendants to institutions as mentally ill or to let them go free after court hearings and trials.
While other courts occasionally try mental competency cases, most are funneled to Department 95 because of the mental health law expertise of its jurists, public defenders, district attorneys and psychologists.
8,000 Cases in Year
Last year, Pirosh and his colleague, Commissioner David Ziskrout, heard almost 8,000 cases there. In about 75% of the cases, they approved some kind of commitment.
Court officials say that most of the defendants are poor, and a growing number are homeless.
Some are there because of minor misdeeds, like drunkenness or lobbing rocks at passers-by. Some have pleaded innocent to crimes by reason of insanity and are there for jury trials. Some seek release from institutions. Others face conservatorship hearings in attempts by family or the state to gain legal custody.
Every morning, the buses roll in from Camarillo State Hospital, 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles, and Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, bringing patients for court hearings and trials in the converted pickle factory on San Fernando Road that houses Department 95.
In the waiting room, some patients sit listlessly in green and orange vinyl chairs, their ankles shackled with leather restraints. Others pace the corridors, plagued by delusional voices that send them running from imaginary villains.
One woman, dishevelled and glassy-eyed, wandered in and out of Ziskrout 's courtroom, where he was hearing conservatorship cases. She plucked at the garments of bailiffs, attorneys and onlookers, wailing in loud, urgent tones.
A bailiff gently escorted her back to the waiting room, which is thick with cigarette smoke. The air crackles with tension and frustration. Attendants guard the exits.
From a window, patients stare at a garden patio that adjoins the waiting room. But they aren't allowed outside--they might scale the 10-foot fence that surrounds the courthouse and disappear. Last year, five patients did just that.
Many judges hate working in Department 95, Pirosh said. Although the standard assignment is two years, one judge disliked it so much that he asked for a transfer after 18 months.
"It has the reputation of being the pits. The worst assignment in the whole district," Pirosh said.
But Pirosh, a lifelong activist who registered black voters in Mississippi during the early 1960s and spent years providing voluntary legal services for the poor, asked for a second stint in Department 95 after his first term expired two years ago.
Cares for the Underdog
"For many years, I have worked for the underdog. I care, I really care," he said.
Today, however, Pirosh starts a new assignment in Juvenile Court. After four years, "You burn out," he said.
"It's emotionally draining to see how sick these people are, that they don't have a place to live, that they're going to be eating garbage for the rest of their lives, that they have no family, or that their family either doesn't care or has washed their hands of it," Pirosh said wearily.
Substitute judges can also find Department 95 rough going. Some attempt to hold mentally ill defendants in contempt for making obscene gestures or refusing to cooperate, Pirosh said.
"Now who's out of touch with reality," he added with a laugh.
Nevertheless, some deputy public defenders and deputy district attorneys request assignment to Department 95.
"I wanted to get over being intimidated by psychologists and medical terminology," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Sharon Matsumoto, who admitted that her first days in court were "a little frightening." Matsumoto recently finished a two-year stint at Department 95.
Deputy Public Defender Richard Brodkin, who left a high-paying private practice 14 years ago to work in Department 95, said he finds the work "incredibly rewarding."
On the other hand, "There are times when I sit in court and cry," Brodkin said.
Most Mentally Ill
Social workers, judges, public defenders and district attorneys who work at Department 95 readily agree that most defendants they see suffer severe mental illness.
But that isn't grounds for commitment under the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, California's mental health law that also is known as LPS.
Pirosh and Ziskrout must determine whether defendants are "gravely disabled," which according to state law means people unable to secure their own food, clothing and shelter or those who are dangerous to themselves or others.