GPSolo Magazine - Oct/Nov 2003
The View from the Bench: What to Do and What Not to Do in My Courtroom
As a state trial court judge I am called upon to decide difficult cases, maintain the dignity and decorum of the courtroom, educate victims, litigants, witnesses, and courtroom observers, and manage a very busy docket efficiently.
The need for all courtrooms to function in a prescribed manner is inherent to the pursuit of justice. Being precise, forthright, and efficient in the presentation of your case is the hallmark of a good attorney. Likewise, the distractions and lost time fueled by inexactitude, fruitless sidebar issues, and rude or unseemly behavior all lend themselves to the potential for delay and ineffective presentation by counsel.
An example of what not to do is evidenced in the following scenario. On a Monday morning counsel for a defendant ran into the courtroom late, very flustered in her sneakers, with a bottle of "Fiji" water that she placed on the counsel table. Counsel apologized for her tardiness to the court but immediately began to speak with opposing counsel about the case. The court looked in disbelief at both counsel and took a recess.
My advice can be distilled to the three P's: professionalism, proficiency, and protocol. Below are some more specific rules to keep in mind.
- There is no excuse for being unprepared. Before court begins, all witnesses should have been interviewed, exhibits should have been marked for identification, and counsel should have a general idea of his or her case presentation.
- Be prepared to discuss relevant cases. Always provide the court and opposing parties with a copy of the case and/or cases you rely on.
Be Aware of Courtroom Resources
- Don't assume the court has the resources you need for trial. Always check with the court well in advance of trial with respect to videotape, photocopying, X-ray boxes, charts, markers, etc. Be prepared and bring your own supplies.
Make an Opening Statement
- Some trial lawyers tend to minimize the importance of an opening statement. In my opinion it is a critical stage of a trial before a judge or jury. An opening is a synopsis of the case and provides a blueprint of the trial for the judge. The familiar adage "tell your audience what you are going to say, say it, and tell them what you said" is right on point.
Keep Your Eye on the Clock
- Always be punctual.
- Be considerate of time constraints and pressures on the court and court staff inherent in their efforts to administer justice. Judicial time is at a premium, so make honest time estimates.
- Don't submit long memos or strings of citations on the day of the trial and expect them to have any effect. Although judges read the court file prior to taking the bench, late submissions will very often not make it to the file, and even if they do the judge may not have sufficient time to read and digest the materials submitted.
- Be respectful. Nastiness and rudeness rarely impress the court or help your client. Remember, courtesy is never inappropriate.
- Don't interrupt other counsel, witnesses, or the court.
- Don't remain seated when addressing the court unless permission has been granted to remain seated.
- Address the court as "Your Honor" or "the Court," not the more familiar "Judge."
- Address and refer to all other adults—parties, witnesses, and counsel—by their surname, not their first name. Children should be addressed by their first name.
Observe Courtroom Procedures
- Don't argue after a ruling. Unless permitted to do so by the court, a lawyer should not continue to argue after the court has made its ruling on the point in contention. Counsel would be better served to articulate their argument in a post-trial brief or memorandum for reconsideration.
- Don't ask questions of or confer with other counsel on the record without obtaining permission of the court.
- Don't hand documents directly to the court.
- Dress appropriately: no sneakers or open shirts, as the court does not generally recognize "casual days."
- Don't mislead the court about fact or law. This might seem self-evident . . . but you would be surprised.
Pamila J. Brown is a judge in the District Court for Maryland of Howard County. She can be reached at Pamila.Brown@courts.state.md.us.