Finally, the double doors swung open and the bailiff welcomed us. "Come in and make yourself comfortable," he said as if inviting us into his parlor. For him, it was just another day in traffic court. But for us, it was judgment day.
The back rows quickly filled with what I had come to think of as the "casual crowd." Dressed mostly in jeans and T-shirts, several in this group looked like they had just rolled out of bed without even running a comb through their hair.
The middle rows gave way to the more upscale defendants, mostly dressed in suits and dresses, seemingly on their way to work or other meaningful endeavors.
I went for the front row, holding my folder on my lap so the judge would see I was prepared with evidence.
After several minutes the judge walked in, a woman about my age with stylish hair and a slight smile. She patiently explained the procedures to us, offering the chance to change our plea and asking us to briefly explain our circumstances.
I had prepared for this. I watched "Judge Judy" and knew I had to keep it brief. I was ready to give my short explanation and offer my photos and other evidence. I knew I should not answer questions unless asked. Under no circumstances should I get emotional. I was prepped and ready. I could feel the adrenaline surge.
The roster outside the courtroom showed my name third on the long list. But the judge explained that all those pleading "guilty with explanations" would go first. Those of us with "not guilty" pleas would follow. I groaned as I saw my day disappear.
The first man the judge called was cited for driving 20 miles over the speed limit. He stood before the bench, stated his name, and pleaded guilty. The judge asked if he had an explanation that would reduce his fine. "I was in a hurry," he said. The judge blinked twice, struck her gavel, and gave him the same fine.
The next woman was also charged with speeding. "I was going down a hill when he clocked me. It's not fair to make it the same speed going down a hill," she whined. The judge seemed to take this in with amazing calm. "That's what brakes are for," she offered.
The next man was going 80 when the officer picked him up. "I thought it was 65 through there. I didn't know it went down to 55," he said with confidence. The judge looked at him, trying to understand. "So you thought you were only going 15 miles over the speed limit, not 25?"
"Yeah," the man responded as if he was making great progress. "Nobody gets picked up for just going 10 or 15 miles over the speed limit."
"Yes, they do," the judge said as she struck her gavel with gusto and refused to reduce the fine.
Finally, the judge was ready to hear from those of us pleading "not guilty." It seemed to me she was out of patience after the litany of sorry stories. But I took a deep breath and rehearsed my statement one more time, making sure my photos were in order.
She called my name and asked if I wanted to change my plea. "No, ma'am," I stated firmly, ready to jump in with my well-rehearsed testimony.
"No police officer has appeared to dispute your claim. Case dismissed," she said and banged her gavel.
I stood there stunned. "You mean you don't want to know what happened?" I asked stupidly. "You don't want to see my photos?"
"No. There are no charges against you. You are free to go. Next case."
I moved slowly away from the microphone, still holding my file of evidence. I felt strangely frustrated. I had wanted to prove myself and earn justice. This was too easy.
Walking to my car, I spotted a bright bumper sticker on a car parked behind mine. "Grace happens," it said.
Suddenly, I burst out laughing as I stuffed my folder of evidence into the trashcan. I'd been so busy worrying about justice that I hadn't even recognized grace.