It is a hot summer day. I look out over the Courtroom from the bench and see several pairs of shorts, t-shirts (some sleeveless) and a couple of baseball caps. Another day in court in the summer. Another decision for me: How much of a deal do I make of not dressing properly for Court?
As a judge, I have an obligation to enforce decorum (behavior in keeping with good taste and propriety) in the courtroom. We do serious work in that room, and I have a duty to maintain order so that people know that important work and often critical decisions happen here. This covers not only what people may not do in courtrooms (chew gum, sip on drinks, read a newspaper or book, talk), but also what they wear.
Judges may have different styles for maintaining order in the courtroom. Some judges have a very informal style in the courtroom. That approach seems to work for them, but I think that being too informal depreciates the dignity of the Court.
On the other hand, I have observed judges that rule their courtrooms as their personal fiefdom. This style can intimidate and even frighten people not used to being in this place. They may become so intimidated that they cannot even talk.
So we walk the fine line of maintaining order and decorum on the one hand, while attempting to put the litigants enough at ease that they can tell their story. Sometimes, it is a difficult matter. When emotions run high, as in some domestic abuse cases or marriage dissolutions, the judge must show compassion and also a resolution to follow the rules of law. It is often hard to maintain patience and courtesy while explaining what a person wants just won’t happen, because the law requires the judge to do otherwise. These situations can be even more difficult if the person does not speak English and the conversation goes through a certified interpreter.
The most important thing for folks coming to court is to be assured that they have been heard. I will sometimes repeat back what I think I heard to be sure it is what the person meant to say. By balancing the discipline to maintain proper decorum and the consideration to encourage the free flow of information, a judge can do the best job possible.
That’s my goal, every day on the job.
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Next week: How May I Serve You?