The Deconstruction of Justice: An Interview with Johnny Dwyer

November 16, 2019   •   By Emma Baker

ON A GLOOMY October morning, Johnny Dwyer and I walked the Brooklyn Bridge, tracing the roughly 3,000 steps between New York’s Eastern and Southern District courthouses. We met at Cadman Plaza Park in Brooklyn, where he wanted to show me a special bench. “They confiscate your phones in court,” he explained, “so I spent a lot of time sitting on this bench, dumping my entire brain into my notebook.” Over the past four years, Dwyer observed more than 200 criminal cases in the US District courts of Brooklyn and Manhattan. He wanted to get to the bottom of a relatively straightforward — if elusive — question: what does justice look like? 

In The Districts: Stories of American Justice from the Federal Courts, Dwyer guides readers on a behind-the-scenes tour of the criminal justice system: the rules, players, and cases that have shaped our modern conception of what constitutes justice. Since stumbling into court reporting in 2009 — much of his first book, American Warlord, is reported through court proceedings and documents — he’s become rather obsessive. The Districts reflects this: if at times we get a bit bogged down by the minutiae of each individual case, we sense that it’s done with heart, rigor, and the utmost respect for those involved — in short, that Dwyer has done his absolute best to faithfully render the impossibly intricate and opaque system of the courts. (“I’m really trying to dial it back,” he tells me, bashful and sincere.)

On the other side of the East River, he points out the landmarks of the Southern District: the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse, the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Courthouse (which he affectionately calls “the utility closet of Manhattan”), and the Vietnamese restaurant around back. He has no analogous bench in the Southern District; in fact, there are no benches on the entire property. Instead, we settle for a tiny public park in Chinatown — he’s got a little while before his acupuncture appointment — to chat over black coffee about the banality of power, the pageantry of a courtroom, and why we’d both rather be tried in the Eastern District.


EMMA BAKER: What drew you to court reporting in the first place?

JOHNNY DWYER: Well, I grew up in church, so there was something really calming about sitting in court. Even if the subject matter was violence or whatever, just the orderliness of the process, the decorum of the courtroom, the underlying respect of whole thing was really attractive to me. The first time I actually sat in a federal trial, it seemed really performative and inorganic, this notion of an attorney — a prosecutor, representing the government — standing in open court making an accusation. I remember watching it thinking, “This is very strange. This is not the way reality works.” And then I realized what they’re doing is constructing a reality around their case, to the point where that is their reality. But I always have this sort of outsider’s perspective on it. And that’s what I wanted to write about, the day-to-day labor of creating what they’re trying to create, which is justice — or theoretically, it’s justice. In the near term, it’s just a victory for the government. And I think the book is a lot about those competing impulses: the impulse to win versus the impulse to do what’s just.

I’ve heard you use the phrase, “the production of justice.” That’s a really interesting way to recast the idea of “justice,” which I think for most people is just an amorphous moral ideal. But you’re repositioning it as a good that is literally manufactured. What does that phrase mean to you?

If you just look at the raw numbers of it, the Department of Justice as an entity really exists for the purpose of prosecuting drug crime and immigration crime. But in the districts here [in New York], they have these other categories that they’ve earned a reputation on, whether it’s white collar crime, organized crime, or national security crime. So the actual “production of justice” is really these crimes that you and I never read about in the paper, like deporting a migrant or someone who’s reentered the United States who’s already been prosecuted once — that’s a standard prosecution. There are thousands of those. The busiest districts in the country are actually on the border, because all they do is churn out these immigration cases. So, to get to the production idea: the sheer volume of cases creates this sense that it is an almost manufacturing-like process. But when you actually get into the weeds of every case, you realize it’s someone’s life. It’s also someone’s labor, whether it’s the defense attorney or the prosecutor or the judge.

But I feel like there’s another way to look at it, too, which is that justice is something that is created. It’s not just something that naturally exists — in each one of these cases, there’s actually an output that is produced, which is, ostensibly, “justice.”

That’s the ideal, that’s the perfect world. And I think the most enjoyable thing about going to sentencings is to hear the judges talk about that, even in oblique terms. They’re really weighing, “What is the most just outcome?” Usually, it’s in terms of a sentence, or sometimes it’s in terms of a fine, but that is the process where they're actually “creating” something that resembles justice. But, that’s also a slightly superficial way of looking at it. The reason I focused in such minute detail on each case is because the process of a case itself creates its own form of justice.

How do you mean? 

Just the fact of being accused of a crime, and then having it go through the judicial process, it has a real impact on people’s lives that is outside of the “I’m going to jail” or “I’m going to be fined” notions of justice. Whether it’s the social isolation or whether it’s losing business relationships … these are kind of intangible, not quantified, but they’re real for the person who’s going through it.

I’m assuming that’s what got you interested in writing the book — the opportunity to pull the curtain up and reveal what’s really going on, on the ground, for the people in a courtroom.

I first began writing about the Southern District on what were called “narco-terrorism” cases. And the law enforcement work on those is pretty shoddy — it was a lot of sting operations, which are sort of low-fidelity, evidence-gathering processes. And I said, “I’d really like to know more about what else goes on in these districts.” There were no real books looking at it in the holistic way. I wanted something that stepped back and couched it in history, and really talked about the social practice of prosecution. And also the individuals — like, “Who is a federal prosecutor?” It’s sort of like a self-effacing career: on the one hand, you literally represent the government, and you’re not supposed to have a personality. But when you cross a certain level, particularly when you’re a US Attorney, then you’re allowed to have a personality, and you get these personalities like Rudy Giuliani, Preet Bharara, James Comey, Loretta Lynch. And the trajectory of that change, from being a completely anonymous civil servant to becoming a political figure, I thought, “Wow, that’s a really fascinating thing to follow.”

And a fascinating type of person for whom that trajectory — total anonymity to politics — is attractive.

Look, I don’t like reading books about powerful people. They really bore me. But I love reading about powerful people before they were powerful. So, one of the premises of this book was to get to these people at a moment before they would become powerful. And quite a few are on that trajectory right now — a handful of characters have since moved to Washington and are in senior positions, either at the Justice Department or in the intelligence community. I anticipate that within days, weeks, months, years, these are going to be names that we all know.

On the list of difficult interview subjects, federal prosecutors probably take the cake. What did you learn about building a relationship with them?

I find a lot of these prosecutors have a lot of soft skills that make them really adept at navigating conversations with reporters. I think one thing I learned is that they want to talk to the press. They’re active consumers of media. They understand how media operates, and they especially understand how media operates in the context of a criminal case. But by and large, when they did speak with me, it was on background, and it was approved by the US Attorney’s Office, and maybe by the main justice itself. There’s a sense that whenever you’re having a conversation with a prosecutor, it’s kind of a chaperoned date. And I treated it as such.

I’m curious about how you figured yourself, as a character, into the book.

A lot of the stuff where I can step back and assume a degree of neutrality and objectivity, then that’s me writing in the third person. But the moments where I lost the ability to perceive that within the courtroom — the moments where I was emotionally shaken — I’d just air it out there, and people will do with it what they want. But there are also moments where I did enter the actual judicial process. At the outset of the book, the first thing I did was to sue the government. It was a particular national security case, and I sued to open the courtroom — it actually went to the Second Circuit. And I thought I would write about that whole process. And I realized that process is actually kind of ho-hum. In terms of the act of reporting this book, I needed to insert myself into the process at certain points when they were trying to shut me out of it, like closing a courtroom. And then in terms of inserting myself into the text, I’ll include at least one of the dozens of times I got kicked out of a courtroom. Which sounds much worse than it is. In most cases, it’s done very nicely.

In the introduction, you mention that a point of the book — maybe the point of the book — is to assert the public’s right to know what’s going on.

Yeah, totally. The public, they’re almost an afterthought in terms of the day-to-day proceedings of a courtroom. I mean, when there’s a jury there, okay, there’s some representatives of the public, the press, and the in-house press, but there’s also boundaries as to what they will write about. They don’t have the mandate, the deadline, or the sort of word count to do a rich portrait of a criminal defendant or a prosecutor. So I think when a writer does have that mandate and steps into the frame, it’s a little jarring. But, the way I feel is that as reporters, our role in the process is to raise our hand for the public and be like, “Hey, we’re here. We have a right to know what’s going on.” In the Eastern District, they were fully game for it. In the Southern District, they’re like, “Absolutely not.”

Is this necessarily a New York story?

It is a New York book. And that was one of my objectives: before I’m priced out of this city, I want to write a New York book. But it’s also a Washington book. It’s a Hollywood book. It sort of connects the dots between what happens in these places and our wider culture. As a concrete example of that, you look at a film like Goodfellas, which is like a really universal film. It’s also an Eastern District film. It’s very much an Eastern District film, top to bottom. And I write about that in the book, this notion of looking at criminals as these sorts of antiheroes. I mean, obviously Dostoyevsky was doing it, but Scorsese revisited it in a way that made it really real for people, to the point where it became part of the popular culture. I mean, after the fact we had Tony Soprano, who even made it more so. And it actually became a problem for prosecutors, because just because someone was affiliated with organized crime wasn’t inculpatory enough for a lot of juries. Now they’re like, “Oh, but maybe he’s a Tony Soprano or a Henry Hill–type character!”

Right. I mean, the whole idea of a courtroom drama is so burned into our brains via pop culture. What did you have to unlearn from the theatrical conceptions you had of what goes down in court?

That’s an interesting question. I actually saw the courts as a way to solve a narrative problem that writers always face, which is finding a beginning, middle, and end of the story. A criminal case has all those elements baked into it. And so I’d have a consciousness of that fact when I was reporting. And, a lot of times it was a non-climatic climax. It was obviously of huge import for the person being sentenced, but for anyone else involved, it was just another day in court. But there were a few sentencings where the significance was really apparent, and the emotion was really palpable, and I tried to render that as best I could.

So on the one hand, you’ve got, “This is this is a climax people are expecting, how do I complicate it?” and on the other, you’ve got, “This isn't exciting enough, how do I turn it into something juicy?” From a narrative standpoint, how did you deal with that?

So, I love genre conventions. But my favorite part about writing nonfiction is to see the tension between those genre conventions that we’re all familiar with and reality. In most cases, they don’t map. When we are presented with these instances where the genre elements aren’t really meeting any sort of dramatic reality, I actually really enjoy it. I feel like both both good fiction and good nonfiction explore that idea, to some degree.

Can you give an example?

Well, the characters in organized crime cases are a lot more banal and underwhelming than they are in the films.

Was that devastating to realize?

No. I mean, I love that sort of disappointment where you just see the pure humanity of someone — especially a mob snitch. And there’s a deep bench of mob snitches in the Eastern District. They brought them all out in this one particular case that I write about, and I even write about how they were recited some of the same lines that they had [been recited in] other cases — there’s the real production element to it — “Oh, this is just how we handled it in the last trial.”

Okay, the title. If you’re not already in the frame of mind to think about federal court, “The Districts” is totally vague. What did you want to evoke with that title?

So, the book was actually proposed and sold under the title “Southern/Eastern.” I like that title because I thought it was kind of a whiplash term, and I thought it demanded something of the reader. It may very well do that, but it just doesn’t make for a great book title. So my editor’s like, “Let’s bring this down to earth a little bit. Let’s ground it in something real without making it too didactic.” He proposed The Districts, which I also like. For one, it’s very accurate. That’s gotta count for something.


Emma Baker is a writer and current graduate student in NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.


Banner image: "Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse (Home of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and S.D.N.Y.)" by Ken Lund is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.