Just about every judge on television brings his court to order by striking the bench with his gavel. It makes for great television, but in the 20-some courtrooms in which I have presided, I have never seen a gavel.
Why is that? I like to joke that the administrators are afraid I’d hurt myself if there were a hammer on the bench. (I saw a cartoon once of an angry judge who hit the bench with his gavel, and then pick up the broken eyeglasses he had hit by mistake!)
It seems to me that the purpose of a gavel is to get the attention of the people in the courtroom to call them to order. It may also be used if tensions and tempers rise in a case and it looks like one or more of the participants may get out of control.
I have found that hitting the bench with my palm has the same effect. I don’t think I’ve had to do that more than a half-dozen times in 25 years on the bench. When I have done it, I’m sure the people in the courtroom thought I was quite angry. Actually, I was not. It was a purposeful performance to regain control over the courtroom.
I recall a family court matter where both sides were pro se – no lawyers were present. The man became more and more agitated until he was almost yelling to me about what a bad person the woman was. I hit the bench with my palm and said, “Now just a minute!” I turned to the bailiff and told him to prepare to take the man into custody. I then turned back to the man and, in a much calmer voice, told him that I really did not want to find him in contempt and order that he be taken to jail, but that if he did not calm down, that is exactly what I would have to do. He did settle down and was quite respectful during the rest of the hearing.
Sometimes, a judge needs to appear upset in order to get everyone’s attention and regain control of the courtroom. Judges can get into difficulty, however, if they really ARE upset and make extreme remarks that offend.
It’s a fine line, as is much of what judges do. But if walked carefully, we can become better judges.
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Next week: I Have a Good Memory…