“Um, your honor?” asked a slightly nervous Alex, a tall, thin lanky twenty-something dressed in a polyester three-piece suit as he approached one of the two microphones set up under the twinkling lights of Pete’s Candy Store’s back room stage. “Am I allowed to bring my drink into court?”
In any normal courtroom this would be an absurd question. But this isn’t a normal courtroom. This is Nora’s Court, a monthly event that turns Pete’s Candy Store into a fully-functioning courtroom supervised by Judge Nora Breen who, with the help of the audience—serving as an informal jury—will moderate disputes and ultimately issue a ruling. But don’t worry, it’s not as official as all that: after all, Breen isn’t a real judge. And yes, booze is encouraged.
“No, I have no real knowledge of the law!” Breen said with a laugh, positioning herself behind an elevated podium with her name drawn across the front in colorful magic marker situated in the middle of the two microphones. “But, I do watch a lot of Court TV.”
Usually, Nora’s Court features at least two cases, ranging from minor disputes over anything from a wine-stained cashmere sweater to bragging rights. Whatever the case is, it usually involves a good story, and Tuesday’s hearing was no exception.
The plaintiff, named Kate, took her boyfriend Alex to Nora’s Court to settle a domestic dispute—sort of. The couple took a road trip to Churchill Downs racetrack in Kentucky in November. Along the way they stopped at a church thrift store, where Alex bought a three-piece polyester suit (the same one he wore to court). When they arrived at the track, Alex gave Kate $500 to place on a horse. Long story short, Kate got distracted at the mint julep counter (she entered her glass as evidence) and was unable to make the bet. The horse won, but Kate didn’t have the heart to tell Alex mid-celebration that they hadn’t actually won any money. Instead, she later secretly bet the $500 on another horse, which lost. In a real court of law, one might assume the case in question was over the $500 dollars. Wrong. At Nora’s court, the case instead revolved around Alex’s insistence on incessantly wearing the three-piece suit—which he ironically deems his “lucky suit”—and constantly retelling the story to the embarrassment of his girlfriend. Each pled his and her case, and in the end both Breen and the audience sided with Kate.
“I think you can stop telling that story. It’s been six months,” Breen said, smiling. “Kate’s really cute, and she’s really sorry. And that story is really embarrassing. And don’t all of your friends know the story by now?”
An undoubtedly fair ruling on all counts, sure….but that isn’t really the point of Nora’s Court. Breen started the series just four months ago, as a cathartic experience for participants. Inspired by watching court television shows on her lunch break—something she never thought she’d be interested in—Breen decided that this kind of open discussion of problems and disputes is exactly what Brooklyn needs. And while conflict is usually something that inspires anger and bitterness, its mediation—especially in an environment like a cozy bar in Williamsburg—not only makes participants feel better, but helps bring them closer in the end. In this case, court can be liberating.
“It’s been really entertaining, and there’s always a nice resolution,” Breen said. “There’s a real place for this type of public mediation. I like conflict resolution—so many problems in society come from people keeping their problems a secret and thinking ‘just get over it,’ or ‘it’s not important.’ It’s incredibly isolating to live that way.”
Breen’s unorthodox approach to conflict resolution also includes something not typically found in a traditional court of law: an audience that publicly weighs in on the conflict in question, and ultimately helps determine the guilty party. The audience serves as a sort of mirror, helping to create the distance necessary between the conflict and the complainants to allow both parties to re-evaluate their anger—or at least see the other person’s point of view more clearly.
“People complain all the time, but only to their friends,” Breen continued. “And friends always agree with you. But if two people come and tell both sides of the story to an unbiased audience, both will realize that there’s a gray area. All you need is for people to listen.”
According to Breen, those who come to Nora’s Court leave with a sense of relief, and oftentimes learn something about themselves in the process.
“These cases almost always end in consensus,” Breen said. “It’s much more of a negotiation—a back and forth. The first Court TV show I ever watched was Moral Court. It wasn’t based on law, so it was more subjective, like this. Everyone has a say here.”
Nora’s Court is in session every first Tuesday of the month at Pete’s Candy store, located at 709 Lorimer Street.
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