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Those were the days in criminal court

Press pass to Martha Stewart and broker Peter Bacanovic’s 2004 insider trading trial
Ralph Gardner Jr.
Press pass to Martha Stewart and broker Peter Bacanovic’s 2004 insider trading trial

Watching the Trump hush money trial on TV, or rather watching talking heads on TV who scored seats to the sold-out show – though I’m not sure those woebegone journalists and legal analysts relegated to the overflow room at Manhattan Criminal Court can truly say they attended the trial – filled me with a pang of nostalgia.

Maybe not the same high-quality nostalgia of some of those “If my mommy could only see me now!” legally debatable moments that I experienced in college. But wistful, transporting, time lost moments nonetheless.

From the year 2000 through the end of that bygone decade I covered four celebrity trials at the dour Depression-era Criminal Court Building where the Trump trial is barreling towards closing arguments; as well as at several other courthouses, both state and federal, conveniently located within shouting distance of each other in lower Manhattan.

I also once worked for the New York City Department of Correction. Its headquarters was then located on the 15th floor at 100 Centre Street, the same floor where the Trump trial is now underway. I can’t say for sure because I haven’t visited that elevator stop since 1980 when I retired as the prison system’s spokesman to take a crack at writing for a living.

But I’m reasonably confident that the barricaded area where you see former President Trump, looking theatrically surly and outraged, retreating during breaks is where I once labored jousting with journalists and writing press releases glorifying the Commissioner of Correction.

So I kind of took it personally when Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, still known as “Coach” following his storied career as the head football coach of the Auburn Tigers (as if United States senator is a demotion from running plays) stepped before the cameras after supportively showing up on Mr. Trump’s behalf to proclaim the courtroom “the most depressing thing I’ve ever been in.”

What was he expecting? Mar-a-Lago? I always found the grittiness part of its glamor. I took my wife to night court there on one of our first dates. If the senator is so depressed perhaps he’d care to shower federal dollars on those corridors where less well-connected defendants and their families navigate the legal system with the help of Legal Aid lawyers. I didn’t think so.

What provokes my nostalgia weren’t the trials themselves. Like military combat they were characterized by long stretches of boredom followed by bursts of adrenalin. It was more the camaraderie among the press corps and the dining opportunities afforded by the surrounding neighborhoods of Chinatown and Little Italy.

Also, the modern Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. District Courthouse had a cafeteria open to the public that offered stunning of views of Lower Manhattan as well as federally subsidized cheeseburgers and daily specials.

The first trial I covered, in 2000, involved Sean Combs, then known as “Puffy,” on weapons charges. The case, for those old enough to remember, involved a nightclub shooting, Jennifer Lopez, a gun tossed from a Lincoln Navigator and the rap mogul’s exoneration on all charges. His able lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, still represents the star, currently under investigation for sex trafficking.

My fondest memory of Sotheby’s auction house owner and shopping mall magnate Alfred Taubman’s trial in a price-fixing scheme with rival Christie’s wasn’t the trail, per se, but lunching with veteran New York Times reporters covering the trial at Forlini’s. That was a famous watering hole on Baxter Street where assistant district attorneys and defense lawyers dined side by side on red sauce pastas. As a journalist working for the upstart New York Observer I felt I’d arrived. It was at Forlini’s that I first experienced the subtle sophistication of broccoli rabe.

It’s been said that Martha Stewart’s 2004 court date was the one that most resembled Donald Trump’s in terms of the celebrity wattage, media feeding frenzy and the number of satellite truck arrayed up and down Centre Street.

I was heartened to read a Q&A in Politico where CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, part of the journalistic horde covering the Stewart trial alongside me, was asked what he was losing sleep over as the Trump spectacle approached? His answer: finding a seat. That was always the fear. That you’d fail to show up at the crack of dawn and be denied admission.

Fortunately, federal court, where the Stewart trial was held, was a relatively posh affair compared to the Criminal Courts Building. We were even issued laminated press passes as distinct from our NYPD working press credentials. I’ve used those Police Department laminates to gain free admission to places like the Louvre. But my experience is that their effectiveness turns on the attitude of the cop manning whatever police line you hope to cross.

The trial of philanthropist Brooke Astor’s son Anthony Marshall and his attorney for bilking her estate may have been the most companionable, if only because it droned on for months. Back then reporters weren’t expected to provide hot takes for their online readers as they do now. It sounds charmingly quaint but during recesses the press pool would compare notes and come to consensus about whether all of us heard the witness say the same thing.

Since the Trump hush money court part has room for only fourteen rows of seats, seven seats to a row and politicians are pounding down the doors to testify their fealty to Donald Trump, that means that much of the press is relegated to the overflow room.

I’m unfamiliar with the politics behind the Trump trial’s seating arrangements; about how big shot anchors such as Anderson Cooper and Lawrence O’Donnell always seen to find vacant seats in the courtroom. But the answer may have been provided by a New York Times Metro Desk editor. He identified placeholders as “the real unsung heroes of the whole thing.”

We never had placeholders back then, let alone an overflow room. Working reporters were their own placeholders. It proved you had skin in the game.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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