The Judge as Grand Inquisitor

December 8, 2014 § 1 Comment

Some judges sit through a trial impassively, leaving counsel to wonder whether hizzoner is paying any attention at all. Other judges take an active part, hurling questions like shrapnel through the courtroom. Still other judges fit somewhere in between the two extremes.

It’s a phenomenon I’ve posted about before here and here.

In the COA case SKL Investments v. Hardin and Torrence, decided November 18, 2014, the appellant charged that the chancellor erred when he “continually mischaracterized testimony [and] interrupted and veraciously ‘crossed’ [SKL’s] witnesses while protecting other witnesses in a manner that hindered [SKL’s] development of its case[.]” [My emphasis] I will leave it up to the reader to look up the definition of ‘veraciously.’

So, did the learned chancellor cross a line in his interrogation in this case? No, said the court, in an opinion penned by Judge Irving:

¶16. … While the record reveals that the chancery court interrogated witnesses and even sometimes interrupted witnesses as they testified, a contextual reading of the record also reveals that the chancery court did not “overstep[ ] its judicial authority” as SKL now claims.

¶17. The chancery court was within its right to “interrogate witnesses, whether called by itself or by a party.” Powell v. Ayars, 792 So. 2d 240, 248 (¶29) (Miss. 2001); see also M.R.E. 614(b). Certainly, it would have been “‘grounds for reversal if the [chancery court had] abuse[d] the authority to call or question a witness[,] abandoning [its] impartial position as a judge and assuming an adversarial role.’” Copeland v. Copeland, 904 So. 2d 1066, 1074 (¶27) (Miss. 2004) (citing Powell, 792 So. 2d at 248 (¶29)). However, “there [was] no requirement for the [chancery court] solely to be a silent observer.” Copeland, 904 So. 2d at 1074 (¶28) (citation omitted). After reviewing the record, we find that the chancery court did not abuse its discretion in its examination of the witnesses. This issue is without merit. Accordingly, we affirm.

There is the oft-cited apocryphal tale of the chancellor who interrupted and took over questioning of a witness, only to be interrupted in turn by counsel, who pleaded, “Judge, I don’t mind you questioning the witness, but please don’t lose the case for me.”

Another point: if you’re going to accuse the judge of going overboard, at least use an adverb that fits the conduct.

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