Many citizens appear in Minnesota courts without attorneys, particularly in conciliation courts and before child support magistrates. Some basic rules of courtroom conduct must be followed to avoid not only losing your case, but possibly being warned by the judge about contempt of court.
When students and their teachers visit our court and it is announced by the bailiff “all rise!” I explain that they were asked to stand as I, the judge, entered, not because I am someone special, but rather out of respect for our courts. You may have heard that a defendant in a criminal trial in federal court in Minneapolis refused to stand when the judge and jury entered the courtroom several times on the first day of trial. She was found in direct contempt of court and sentenced to sit in jail during the trial. The judge warned her that her continued refusal to stand may result in her observing the proceedings from another room via closed-circuit television. The judge was enforcing the court rules of decorum, that is, rules for dignified speech, behavior and attire in the courtroom.
Judges have a duty under court rules to maintain decorum in the courtroom. The court rules state the following duties of courtroom participants:
The judge shall be dignified, courteous, respectful and considerate of the lawyers, the jury and witnesses. The judge shall wear a robe at all trials and courtroom appearances. The judge shall at all times treat all lawyers, jury members and witnesses fairly and shall not discriminate on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, sexual preference, status with regard to public assistance, disability or age.
The lawyer is an officer of the court and should at all times uphold the honor and maintain the dignity of the profession, maintaining at all times a respectful attitude toward the court. Lawyers shall treat all parties, participants, other lawyers and court personnel fairly and shall not discriminate on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, sexual preference, status with regard to public assistance, disability or age.
The parties and the audience: Dignity and solemnity shall be maintained in the courtroom. There shall be no unnecessary conversation, loud whispering, newspaper or magazine reading or other distracting activity in the courtroom while court is in session.
There is a cable TV show called “What Not to Wear.” There should be one called “What Not to Wear in Court.” You’d be amazed what some people wear to court: T-shirts with marijuana leaves or profanity or anti-government slogans on the front; filthy, muddy and greasy clothes; and extremely revealing tank tops and mini-skirts. These certainly are items of clothing that you wouldn’t wear to your grandma’s birthday party. Being so attired while in court shows disrespect for the judicial system. Judges must wear black robes and lawyers must wear suits or sport-coats or more-formal-than-casual attire.
Be sure to be on time for court. If you do not have a lawyer, make plenty of copies of documents you want the judge to review. Be sure you follow the rules about sending copies to your opponent and filing them with the court prior to the hearing. Be organized: handing the court clerk a pile of disorganized papers will not likely bring a favorable result.
If you come to court, you will see signs on the doors indicating “no gum, no cell phones, no hats, no books or newspapers.” Despite these warnings, we frequently hear people’s cell phones ringing in court. Once, in a hearing before me, a witness on the witness stand actually answered his ringing cell phone. If you need to speak with a witness or colleague, go out in the hallway.
If you are present with a lawyer, your lawyer will speak on your behalf. Do not interrupt any of the lawyers or the judge. If you are not represented by a lawyer, you may not approach the judge’s bench unless requested to do so or after asking for permission. Address the attorneys as “Mr.” or “Ms.” and address the judge as “Your Honor.” Speak slowly and with sufficient clarity and volume that all present, including the court reporter, can hear your argument. Do not engage in lengthy stories, profanity or threats. TV judges and litigants are meant to provide entertainment. Real courts are not.
So, when you come to court as a participant or an observer, please be prepared to follow the rules of decorum, that is, dignified behavior in respect for the judicial system. No one in the audience is allowed to speak unless called as a witness. These rules are necessary for respect of our system of government in general and the judicial branch in particular.
Wright County District Court Judge Steve Halsey is chambered in Buffalo. Judge Halsey hosts a blog at www.minnesotafamilylawissues.blogspot.com. He is also a former member of the Anoka City Council.