“ASK NOT FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS …”
September 27, 2011 § 3 Comments
Cell phones in court rooms have given rise to some pretty funny situations.
I have seen judges fly into a blind rage at the sound of a ringing cell phone during a trial. And I have seen judges act benignly, at most emitting a resigned sigh to the techno intrusion. The range of reactions is almost infinite.
In the early days of cell phones in our district, Judge George Warner was in the more-or-less rageful category. Since people were unaccustomed to the new contraptions, it happened fairly often that they neglected to turn them off before entering the court room. So it was that chirping cell phones could be heard as witnesesses droned on in trials. The high frequency ringtones irked Judge Warner the most. He would stop the witness, demand to know whence the intrusion arose, and direct the bailiff to confiscate the offending instrument forthwith. Since it never happened to me or my client personally, I never discovered what became of all those seized phones. I imagined that there was a warehouse with stockpiles of them, some buzzing or beeping merrily along unanswered, with no human to put them to rest.
In time, as people became used to the electronic marvels and the instruments became more sophisticated, we learned to put our phones on “vibrate.” We males also learned not to carry them in our pants pockets in the court room when the phone was on vibrate, lest sudden vibrations in that region cause a surprised yelp or leap into the air inconsistent with court room decorum.
And so the practice became to place the vibrating phone on counsel’s table, where it could vibrate away without consequence. Or so we thought. In one trial I had, I was cross examining the witness at the only court room podium in Judge Mason’s court. The podium was next to counsel opposite’s table. As I questioned the witness, I was distracted by a sound akin to a swarm of bees to my right. After a minute I looked over and there was Robbie Jones’s cell phone lit up like a Christmas tree, vibrating loudly on the oak table. The table was amplifying the sound. Every time the phone vibrated, it inched across the table like a buzzing, manic seventeen-year locust. Jones sat there and watched the creature head toward the edge of the table. Right before it lurched off into oblivion, I snatched it and handed it to Jones with a flourish. We two lawyers were quite amused. Judge Mason not so much.
When I took the bench, it became my practice not to react to the mere blirping of a cell phone in my court room. Most callees react with mortification at their oversight, and commence with comic spasmic desperation to put a stop to the interruption. I figure their embarassment is punishment enough. Of course, my reaction would be different at the second offense by the same person, or if the offender began a cell phone conversation in the court room.
Most judges nowadays react by taking up the phone and holding it until the end of the day or the trial. Judge Gene Fair of Hattiesburg related his woeful experiences:
On one Friday afternoon in Poplarville, early in my first term as a judge, it was announced by me just before beginning of a trial that ringing cell phones during a trial would be considered, as allowed and provided by a Uniform Chancery Rule, to be contempt of court punishable by a fine of $50.00.
Forty (40) minutes into the trial my phone rang. I recessed Court, wrote a check for $50.00, put my phone in chambers and announced that future fines would be $25.00, and would be paid at the close of proceedings, when the offending phone would be returned to its owner by the bailiff. .
It was funny to almost everyone in the Courtroom, as was my payment of $25.00 the following Monday in Purvis, when two lawyers joined me in paying the Clerk a total of $75.00. As Justice Mike Sullivan pointed out when he showed up significantly late for a trial because of having gone to the wrong courthouse and wrote a $100.00 check to the clerk for his contempt, “I have learned a lesson. I hope someone else has also.”
I have had to pay only $25.00 this year, and it is September.
So far in my time on the bench I have paid a total of $250 in four of five of my counties. There are only one or two other offenders who have gone as high as $100.00. In Perry County, the smallest county and the one of which my great-grandfather was a Justice of the Peace, I have a pristine record. It is probably the result of only three one week terms and a few ex-parte days schedule for my presence there.
That oh, so convenient cell phone with its pleasant bell-tone. Will it toll for thee?