2011 PFIG Recipient Natalie Affinito

Career Administrator

Natalie Affinito
College of Arts & Sciences
Political Philosophy, Policy & Law (PPL) Major
2013 Graduation Year

Internship: Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, PA

Notes on the first week

I am now a little more than one week into my summer internship and I could not be more excited. This summer, I am working as a judicial intern in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, unlike in other states, the Court of Common Pleas is considered a general jurisdiction court, which means that almost every case in the county comes through this court, no matter if it is a jury trial, a bench trial, arbitration, civil, criminal, juvenile, marriage licenses, whatever. This summer, my internship is divided mostly between the Civil and Criminal Divisions. Currently, I am working for the Honorable Judge Ronald W. Folino in the Civil Division located in the City-County Building. Civil cases differ from criminal cases in that the plaintiff (the party who filed the complaint) is suing the defendant for money damages. Often times, civil lawsuits involve car accidents, personal injury, breach of contract, medical malpractice, or “slip and fall” cases. In a civil verdict, no one goes to jail, no one gets probation and no one is “guilty.” Instead, juries or judges determine whether or not the defendant is “liable” for the injury or wrongful act and they can decide to award a money value to be recovered by the plaintiff. I will be spending approximately three weeks with Judge Folino in the civil court before moving over to the criminal division in the old courthouse next door, because civil trials go on break for the summer starting in early June and lasting until early September. Unlike in criminal cases, there is no “right to a speedy trial” for civil cases, and historically civil courts closed during the summer months. Today, civil courts still remain open for the summer, but they mostly deal with administrative manners instead of conducting actual trials.

In my first week, I have already been exposed to so much of the “behind the scenes” aspects of judicial proceedings. Judge Folino is currently sitting as the Calendar Control Judge for Allegheny County. In this position, all of the trials for the day report to his courtroom for what is called the “Calling of the List.” At this point, Judge Folino assigns each trial to a judge in the courthouse and sends the non-jury trials on their way. Things really get interesting when Judge Folino meets with the parties for each jury trial in what is called conciliation meetings in his private chambers. In these meetings, only the attorneys, the judge, the law clerk and myself are present and parties speak openly and frankly about the possibility of settling the case before they go through the long and expensive trial process. They discuss how certain witnesses or attorneys may appear to a jury, the amount of money the defendant really has to offer and how much money a jury would realistically award given all the facts and the law. The judge will often meet with the opposing parties separately and frame the case in different ways (i.e. emphasize the strength of the plaintiff’s case to the defendant and the possibility of a high jury verdict and emphasize the weaknesses in the plaintiff’s case to the plaintiff and the holes that the defense and pry open in trial) in order to reach a settlement agreement. If the two parties cannot reach a settlement, Judge Folino will then rule on objections to voir dire questions. These are questions attorneys may ask in the jury selection process to determine whether or not potential jurors have bias or prejudice toward one side or the other. I hope to observe the jury selection at some time this week. Once a jury is selected, the attorneys will meet with their trial judge in his or her private chambers to rule on motions to exclude evidence from trial; this is another process I hope to observe during my time here. Many cases settle following this step in the process. Following conciliation meetings, Judge Folino sits for motions and hearings, which often include motions for continuance (delay the trial), motions to withdraw as counsel (an attorney pulling himself off the case), or motions to dismiss the case. In the afternoons, I have the opportunity to go to other judge’s courtrooms to observe real trials.

As a judicial intern, I have the opportunity to observe and learn through this entire process. Most of the proceedings are only witnessed by judges and attorneys and are entirely left out of the dramatic interpretations of trials you see on television or in movies. One thing that I have learned so far that has really stuck out to me is that an extremely small number of actually go to trial. The vast majority of the work is done behind the scenes, outside of the courtroom, either in the preparation done by the attorneys, or in the judge’s chambers to eventually settle the case. Observing this process gives me the opportunity to learn how attorneys and judges interact with each other in a candid fashion, outside of the formal nature of the courtroom. When I am not observing Judge Folino’s proceedings, I am performing legal research for him. Judge Folino is currently writing a negative opinion on the “product-line” exception to successor liability, a minority doctrine that is only accepted in about six states, including Pennsylvania. I will use the law library on the top floor of the City-County building to find cases, law review articles, restatement provisions, American Law Reports, and other legal documents that criticize the rule. I will then compile my research and create an outline of my findings for each article that will be easy to navigate and understand by the judge. Also, Judge Folino’s law clerk recommended that I read the national bestseller non-fiction book A Civil Action during my down time. Written by a lawyer, this book follows an actual complex civil case involving water contamination from beginning to end and gives you real insight into an attorney’s preparation for a big case. (This book was also made into a movie staring John Travolta if you want the short version).

This week has really opened my eyes to a very different side of the American legal system. The legal system we have is truly a public service because it provides a fair and impartial means to resolve disputes that inevitable arise in a free society. In the weeks to come in the Civil Division and also in the Criminal Division, I hope to learn more about what judges and lawyers do on a day-to-day basis within the courthouse and to see all aspects of a trial from motions, to conciliation, to settlement, to jury selection to the trial itself. I also hope to learn more about legal research and how to use the resources available in text and in online databases to efficiently search for, find, and comprehend useful information.

Midway

Now past the halfway mark of my internship with the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County in downtown Pittsburgh, I look back and am in awe at how incredible this opportunity is. I think I have learned more about the trial process and the court system in these past several weeks than I have in two years of taking “pre-law” classes at the University. While the foundations in legal theory that I learn in the classroom are essential to understanding the law, this internship has proven to me that nothing can replace real life experience in a courtroom.

I finished my term with Judge Folino in Civil Court a couple of weeks ago when the civil trial term ended (I am now in the Criminal Division) and I am so grateful for everything I was able to learn working under such an impressive judge. While in Civil Court, I was able to observe all of the different stages of trial proceedings that I described in my last journal entry. My favorite experience was probably when I was able to watch an entire weeklong trial from beginning to end. I was first exposed to this case my first week of my internship when the opposing trial attorneys argued a motion in front of Judge Folino regarding some issues in the discovery phase and the deposition of an expert witness. This motion really left an impression on me because it was the closest thing to a television show that I had seen thus far; the attorneys were literally yelling at each other back and forth (most are rather civil towards each other). Also, I found myself looking up to the defense counsel on the case, one of the few female trial attorneys I had seen in the civil division. I was expecting to see a fairly even split of men and women in the courthouse especially considering that more and more women are attending law school, but I was shocked by how few females I encountered. The female attorney on this case definitely provided me with an example of how a woman can present herself as a strong and competent counsel in front of a jury, despite the prominently male setting. When I first heard about the case, it seemed very simple. A man tripped outside of a property owned by a major medical center and he was alleging that his extensive hip surgery was a result of this fall and that the medical center was liable because the sidewalk was “in disrepair.” I was amazed at how the attorneys could take a seemingly simple incident and expand it to become an extremely complex case, complete with several expert witnesses, hundreds of pages of records, dispute over the duty to maintain the sidewalk and arguments over the character and credibility of the plaintiff bringing the suit. They even spent at least an hour arguing over whether the sidewalk differentiation was one inch or two inches. In the end, the jury ruled in favor of the defense and awarded the plaintiff with no damages.

From a more academic perspective, I think my research project for Judge Folino taught me a great deal about what to expect in law school. Although I had a basic understanding of how to navigate LexisNexis, a general academic database that includes legal references, I had to teach myself how to use WestLaw. WestLaw is only available in the UVA Law Library, so I had never had the opportunity to use it before, but because it is designed specifically for legal research, I now find it a much easier and more efficient way of finding the cases, rulings, and articles I need. After I compiled all of the relevant documents for Judge Folino’s opinion on successor liability, I read everything and wrote a detailed outline on contentions of each article. After reviewing it, Judge Folino told me he was very impressed with my work and he would have expected this kind of outline from a second or third year law student. While I was definitely a little giddy inside with such a generous compliment from the judge, I was mostly glad that I was able to be useful in the judge’s research. Hopefully when the judge’s opinion is published in the next couple of months I may see some of the cases or articles I cited in my research.

Currently, I am working under the Honorable Judge Anthony M. Mariani in the Criminal Division located in the Old Allegheny County Courthouse (right next door to the City-County Building where they house the Civil Division). The first couple of days, I immediately noticed the difference in the atmosphere between criminal and civil divisions. The best way I can describe criminal court is that it is more intense. Unlike civil court where the only thing really at stake is money, criminal offenders risk losing their freedom, or even their life. Every courtroom has at least one Deputy Sheriff at all times and police officers are always scattered along the hallways and many of the court employees wear badges. In the first week alone, I have seen every kind of offender from drug dealers to burglars to murderers. Family members and friends sit in the gallery and often watch teary-eyed as their loved ones are handcuffed in front of them and taken out the door. Criminal Court is probably a lot more similar to what people would expect from watching television shows or movies. I have realized that the criminal division is a supreme example of the court system acting as a public service for the community. The reason why criminal offenders lose their freedom is because they commit offenses that affect the entire community. Their actions make our city and our community a less safe place to live, so our justice system provides a means to protect the rest of society and hopefully deter others from committing these crimes to begin with.

When I am not observing court proceedings, I will have a project to work on for Judge Mariani, like I did for Judge Folino. By the end of the summer, I could be a contributing author to Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure with this project, which is pretty exciting to think about. In Pennsylvania, convicted criminals have the opportunity to file a petition for Post Conviction Relief if they believe they had ineffective counsel. If a trial judge grants this petition and allows for a new trial, often times the petitioner has the right to be released from prison, pending further court proceedings. However, Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure do not specify which party is responsible for informing the petitioner’s location of confinement in order to release them from incarceration. Therefore, there are many people who remain incarcerated, despite the fact that they were granted relief and a new trial. Judge Mariani assigned me and the other intern, Liz, the task of creating a new rule that would solve this administrative issue in the system. We must contact head administrators in the Department of Corrections and the Department of Court Records, research current Pennsylvania rules to find appropriate placement and word usage, and compose a report of our work. Once we complete this and the judge approves our work, he will submit our rule for consideration among the Pennsylvania trial judges at the end of July. This rule would definitely be a testament to prisoner rights and the genuine pursuit of justice in the criminal court system. If someone was wrongly convicted of a crime or did not have a competent attorney representing him or her, then it is only fair to release that person from prison until he or she receives a fair trial – a right everyone is guaranteed in the Constitution.

I am looking forward to my remaining weeks in the Criminal Division here in Allegheny County. I think by the end of this internship I will have a new perspective on the importance of the justice system in our government and in our community.

Final Reflections

On my final day at the Allegheny County Courthouse, I left feeling exhausted from an entire summer of waking up before 6 AM, running around the courthouse in high heels and reading through hundreds of pages of legal documents, but also feeling grateful because I knew that with all of that hard work, I had an irreplaceable experience observing and learning about the true nature of the judicial system in our country. Now that I have finished my ten weeks as a judicial intern, I almost wish I had another month or two before I had to go back to Charlottesville. I’ve been bitten by the courtroom bug, and now I don’t want to leave.

This internship has definitely solidified my intentions of becoming a lawyer, but what type of lawyer, I’m still not sure. Having spent time in the civil division, the criminal division, and one week in family court, I find myself leaning towards the civil side of the law. I have always been fascinated by the laws surrounding the formations of corporations or the intricacies and nuances in the language that can completely change the legal meaning of a contract. Also, Family Court was by far the most depressing week of my entire summer, so I definitely can’t see myself working in that environment permanently. The Honorable Judge Dwayne Woodruff allowed me to observe his proceedings and discuss the differences I observed between juvenile defendants and adults. It was heartbreaking to see children who were barely in their teens being charged with crimes like assault or possession of firearms. To me, this demonstration of crime starting at such an early age is evidence that most criminals are merely products of their environment. If children grow up in a neighborhood where they feel the need to have a gun or do drugs or beat someone up in order to gain acceptance from their peers, it will only result in an endless cycle of crime. The hardest part of family court, however, is when the judge hears Protection From Abuse (PFA) petitions or Termination of Parental Rights (TPR) hearings. I could never imagine myself trying to determine when hitting a child is firm parenting and when it is abuse. Where do you draw that line in the law? Do parents really have the right to hit their child with a belt if they don’t leave a mark? Legally, there is a lot of gray area in these types of questions, so the lawyers and the judge need to make that distinction. While family law is an exceptionally important part of our legal and judicial system, designed to protect children and to steer them back on the right track, I can’t see myself being happy with my work surrounded by such heartbreaking situations.

I am more “on the fence” when I consider my future as a criminal attorney. As I mentioned in my previous journal, there is more than just money at stake in criminal proceedings. An individual may lose their freedom or even their life for committing a crime, unlike the simple money damages or court orders issued for losing a civil lawsuit. As a criminal attorney, you could potentially have someone’s life in your hands. This concept became a harsh reality to me during my internship with the criminal division, and will probably be the most challenging and memorable part of my entire summer. When I was a senior in high school, about two months away from my graduation, a tragic incident occurred that the city will never forget. Three city police officers were shot and killed by a civilian in a domestic dispute call, just minutes from my first childhood home. The perpetrator was charged with three counts of criminal homicide plus over a dozen additional counts of attempted homicide, assault, and possession of illegal firearm paraphernalia. The Deputy District Attorney also decided to pursue the death penalty for the defendant. When I went into work at the courthouse on the Monday the trial was to begin, I knew that I would see cameras and reporters and there would be a lot of emotion in the courthouse. But nothing could have really prepared me for what I actually saw. Hundreds of police officers lined the street outside the courthouse in full attention, honoring their fallen brothers. Dozens of video cameras and boom mics and photographers crowded the entrance gallery and the hallway outside of the courtroom where the trial was to start. Unlike the state of Florida where the Casey Anthony case was tried and documented with live video stream for the world to see, my state keeps the courtroom clear of any form of photography. This is in large part to protect the identity of the jurors and also to keep the courtroom a place of formal legal proceedings and not a television show. As an intern for a criminal judge, I was given permission to sit inside the courtroom along with the police officers and family members who lost loved ones. I sat in the courtroom from 9 AM until almost 7 PM on some nights, and even came in on a Saturday to experience one of the most important trials in Allegheny County in decades. Between seeing graphic photographs from the scene and autopsies and seeing these tough police officers break down in tears on the stand, one of the greatest challenges I encountered was keeping my emotions separate from the facts of the case. I tried my best to think more about the legal issues the case encountered or the reasoning behind certain steps in criminal procedure, but I can’t say that I was able to separate myself entirely. I never met the fallen officers, yet a case like this is a prime example of how crime can impact an entire community, an entire city, especially when the attack is on the people who are meant to protect your community from harm. The case raised several ethical questions that I really cannot answer at this point, but it is certainly something that I will continuously think about because of the experience I had with my internship.

In the end, I think my greatest take-away from this summer was that the judicial system is an extremely important factor of society and it is vital that the public learns at least the basics of how the courts work. Courtrooms are completely open to the public (except for Family Court, in order to protect the identity of minors). The reason why they are open is so that the public can observe and learn about the law. No one expects a layman to understand all of the intricacies and complexities of the law like a lawyer or a judge; but everyone should know how a trial works and the possible legal consequences that can result from certain actions. The judicial system is what keeps our society from breaking into complete chaos. It is our means of resolving conflicts, maintaining order, and delivering justice in our world. Everyone is affected by our legal system is some way, shape or form, so it is foolish to remain ignorant about the way it operates. Pop culture does not even begin to educate the public on such a crucial aspect of their lives, despite how entertaining Law & Order: SVU can be to watch. I would like to challenge anyone reading this journal to spend a couple hours sitting in a courthouse. It could be a federal courtroom or your local magistrate; but you will be amazed by how much you could learn.