FIGHTING THE TIDE THAT WOULD SWEEP AWAY DECORUM

August 23, 2012 § 4 Comments

UCCR 1.01 says that “All proceedings in the Chancery Court … shall be conducted with due formality and in an orderly and dignified manner … The dignity and respect of the Court shall be preserved at all times.” The rule also bans ” … drinks, food, gum or smoking …” and “Bickering or wrangling … Applause or demonstration … and the use of profane or indecent language.”

Courtroom decorum is one of those things that varies widely from district to district, depending on the personality of the chancellor and his or her tolerance level for various forms of behavior.

In my district, I try to make sure that the formality of the courtroom is preserved, that all proceedings are conducted with the attention and gravity that they deserve so that litigants can see that we take their business seriously.

Despite our best efforts, though, philistinism encroaches even into our courtrooms. A few examples:

  • The woman who dropped the “f-bomb” repeatedly in the course of a Clarke County hearing until I had her dragged off in handcuffs to do 30 days in jail. This was after she had assaulted another witness in the hall before court was convened, resulting in her having to sit through her trial in manacles between 2 burly deputies.
  • The man in the same trial who flipped off the judge. That cost him 5 days in jail.  
  • The woman who appeared for a hearing in my courtroom in Meridian who wore a t-shirt that read “If you f-ing think I am f’ing going to do what you tell me, m’f”er, you are f’ing crazy.” I sent her home with instructions not to return to the courthouse property until she changed her attire. (By the way … all the f-words cited here were spelled out fully … you can fill in the spelling for yourself).
  • Judge Mason had a hearing recently in which a matronly grandmother appeared wearing a t-shirt with a similar message, although not as graphic as mine.
  • The man who enters the courtroom in the middle of a trial and calls out loudly to some witnesses, “Lawyer said y’all can come sit out in the hall; y’all come on out here with me.”
  • The select few (all women) who came to court for child support enforcement cases wearing pajamas, and in one case pajamas with fluffy slippers. I don’t know about where you live, but it’s not that uncommon to see folks traipsing about in pajamas in this outpost on the edge of civilization, but I think wearing them to court crosses some kind of line.

Of course, the foregoing are merely a few more blatant examples. We have all seen and heard cell phones blaring, courtroom observers blurting out answers to questions or other “helpful” information, and other disruptions by laypeople who I guess don’t know any better. But the problem is not limited to laypeople. 

Lawyers can be insensitive to the demands of decorum, too. Shortly after I took the bench, before I banned beverages from my courtroom altogether, I had to ask a lawyer to stop repeatedly shaking a large (2-liter?) convenience-store mug of ice while counsel opposite argued a motion. On another occasion I asked a lawyer to set aside a Dr. Pepper she swigged out of through her cross-examination of a witness.

Those are fairly obvious assaults on decorum. A less obvious example is when several lawyers highjack the hearing with banter and joviality to the extent that the sense of the proceeding is lost completely. Everyone enjoys an injection of a soupçon of  humor into a tense trial every now and then, but I reviewed a record once for a trial conducted by another chancellor where the banter and kidding went on for 22 pages. That’s too much, and it sends the message to the parties that their business is trivial.

When I practiced, I always advised my clients to come to court dressed appropriately. And I instructed them in how to behave: no displays of dismay or approval; never interrupt a question or the judge speaking; no gum; no hats; no beverages; show respect for opposing counsel and the judge; and so on and so forth. I think most attorneys do the same, but it’s obvious that the thought has still not occurred to some.

I think preserving decorum in our courts is important. For one thing, it keeps emotion-charged proceedings from getting out of hand. For another, it conveys the message that what is transpiring is serious and taken seriously by the bench and bar. And it sets the courtroom experience apart from the living room where everyone speaks at the same time over the cacophony of the tv.

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§ 4 Responses to FIGHTING THE TIDE THAT WOULD SWEEP AWAY DECORUM

  • Great blog!

    I think back to a line in one of my favorite Clint Eastwood films from the 80s, “Heartbreak Ridge.” Though not the favorable character, Major Malcolm Powers made an statement that seems to ring true, “Sloppiness breeds inefficiency.”

  • vdcster says:

    Having been a legal secretary for almost 40 years, whenever our female clients would ask how to dress for court, I would tell them to wear what they wear to church, however, this advice doesn’t work anymore as the majority of our clients have never darkened the church house doors. Now, we just tell them to wear clean clothes, and hope they don’t show up dressed like strippers!

  • randywallace says:

    Biting my bottom lip, raising my eyebrows and making a small “I cant believe they just did that look” is probably against the rules as well, but I just cant help it when counsel opposite interrupts the Court for “clarification” as the Court is rendering an oral opinion. Thankfully, the Court’s attention is focused on counsel opposite instead of me at that point.

    • Larry says:

      “While the Chancellor is rendering an oral opinion in any action he shall not be interrupted by anyone.” UCCR 4.03.

      I usually hold up my hand and say, “Don’t interrupt me, counsel.”

      It’s amazing what one can find in the rules, if one will only read them.

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