Thursday, June 27, 2013

Dress Code

When I was growing up, when Mom and Dad would occasionally go out for dinner, Mom put on her best dress and Dad his coat and tie and off they’d go.  Just about the same way they would dress for church the next morning. 

When I began to practice law in the mid-1970’s, no one would dare dream of going to the courthouse without a coat and tie – even if you were called for jury duty. 

The Rules of Decorum today provide for “appropriate courtroom attire.”  I used to tell my clients to dress for court as if they were going to church.  That doesn’t work so well any more, as a significant number of churchgoers wear shorts, cut-offs, t-shirts and even tank tops.  I am amazed that people come to court in such outfits. 

No one wore a hat in Lucy McCarthy’s house, but rarely a week goes by when I don’t tell someone in court to take off their baseball cap. 

When I was first on the bench, I would send home defendants who were not properly dressed and told them to come back later in the day.  Most did, but some did not.  So, I switched to thanking those who did come to court dressed up – shirt and tie for men, dress or dress suit for women – often by reducing the fine they were required to pay. 

As an attorney, I rarely went to the office without coat and tie.  Today, with casual Fridays several times a week, attorneys are called into court on short notice and appear in what is inappropriate courtroom attire.  Sometimes it’s not even business casual – it is jeans and a polo shirt.

When I was campaigning for office in the 70’s and 80’s, I would always wear at least a shirt and tie.  Now, candidates running for president are routinely seen in “business casual” or even jeans and plaid shirts.  I’m sure there are well-paid consultants advising the candidates how to dress, but it just doesn’t feel right to me.  When a person comes to court, or asks a voter for the privilege of serving in elective office, I believe they should dress to show the seriousness and sobriety of the task.

But, I have quit complaining about the dress of most litigants and attorneys, unless it is just too offensive to overlook.   But just because I tolerate it doesn’t mean I like it or think it’s appropriate.

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Next week:  All Men Are Created Equal

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Tools of the Trade

The technology used in the practice of law and running the Courts has certainly changed in the quarter century I have been privileged to serve as a District Court judge.  In 1988, there were no computers in the courthouse – or much of anywhere else, for that matter.

Typewriters and carbon paper were used instead of computer printers and copy machines.  Courier services delivered documents to the Courthouse before fax machines were available.  The list of court cases was handwritten out in a bound book:  You’d look up the case name alphabetically and then find out what the number was so you could go to the files and find it.

Court Administrators would take telephone messages and write them out on pink slips of paper – no voicemail then!  

I traveled a lot as a judge then.  In a typical week, I would go to three different courthouses.  Invariably, when I had a break at a courthouse away from my office, I’d find the file I needed to work on was back in Gaylord.  I’d normally have to wait till I got back to Sibley County to get my telephone messages and open the envelopes to see what came in the mail.

Hearings for people from our county that were subject to a petition for commitment as mentally ill or chemically dependent were pretty routinely held at the Willmar Regional Treatment Center.  The judge, attorneys, court reporter and social workers would routinely drive to Willmar for these hearings.  Often, these cases would take less than a half hour, with about three and a half hours of travel time.

My, how times have changed!

Now, we do hearings by interactive television, saving hours of travel time.  E-mail and voicemail (and voicemail on my e-mail!) keep me in constant contact with the courthouses I serve.  Instead of couriers or even faxes, scanners now allow documents to be sent instantaneously by e-mail.  The Court records are on a computer system and documents have been scanned and are available to us on the network.

All of these technological changes have made judges more efficient and able to handle the larger number of cases we are required to handle these days.  But no matter how much more efficient we become because of technological improvements, our most important work is done in the courtroom, where we deal every day with real people and the most significant issues of their lives.

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Next week:  Dress Code

Thursday, June 13, 2013

On-Call Weekends

The Constitutions of the United States and of the State of Minnesota provide that a person who is arrested without a warrant must have his or her case presented to a judge within 48 hours of the arrest.  This is another safeguard to have a judicial officer review the law enforcement officer’s analysis of the case to be sure there was, in fact, probable cause to arrest and hold the defendant.

Most of the time, this is not a problem.  The arrested person is merely brought to court the day after his arrest for the judge to review the probable cause, ensure that there is enough evidence to support the charge, and to set bail and conditions of release.

However, if a Defendant is arrested on a Friday night, for instance, the 48 hours expires before court convenes on Monday.  In these circumstances, a judge must be contacted to review the arrest and approve the continued detention of the suspect.

In the First Judicial District, of which Sibley County is a part, we have developed an on-call system to be sure there is a judge available over the weekend to take calls from officers who need to have an arrest affirmed.  So, about four weekends a year, I carried the cell phone and have taken calls from a few to several dozen law enforcement officers over the course of a long weekend.

In addition to calls from police officers, attorneys for arrested persons will call to attempt to have bail set so their clients may be released from custody prior to Monday morning.  Occasionally, the on-call judge will consider an application for search warrant, as well.

I have reviewed arrests for burglary, theft and many other crimes.  Most often, however, the calls involve driving under the influence or domestic assault.  Normally, these defendants will be held for Court on the next available court date. 

I must say that law enforcement officers are, on the whole, quite careful in ensuring that the arrest is legitimate.  They are often apologetic for interrupting the weekend, but I always tell them that we have the “on-call phone” for a reason.  It is my pleasure, as well as my duty, to assist them. 

Judges are not always thrilled to be tied to a cell phone all weekend, but we all know how very important it is that all citizens’ rights are respected and protected.  It is a real honor to serve as the guardian of the Constitutional rights of all.

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Next week:  Tools of the Trade

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Earth Has Angels All Too Few.

When I walk into the courtroom, I’m usually seeing folks who are having a very bad day.  Many times, it’s the worst day of their lives.

Sometimes, the person having the worst day of their lives is not even in the room.  That person is a child.  When their cases come before me, they are often hurt – emotionally, physically, sexually.  They are neglected, have special needs, have been exposed to controlled substances within and outside the womb.  They have become the pawns in a power struggle between their parents.  They have been hurt – sometimes horrifically – by the very people who gave them life.

These children cannot speak for themselves.  The people who normally would speak for them are fighting over them, or are the people accused of hurting them.

Into these stressed situations step advocates for these children.  Guardians ad Litem (Guardians “for the lawsuit”) are trained to speak for the child and tell the judge what they believe is in the child’s best interest.

For years, we had just a few dedicated women who served as the voice of the voiceless.  These were true volunteers, paying for their mileage and phone expenses out of their own pocket.  Then, we convinced the County Board to reimburse their expenses.  Next, the Judicial District contracted with professionals to give these volunteers training and supervision.

Eventually, these volunteers were compensated minimally for their time.  Now, they, both women and men, have become employees of the state. 

Volunteer or paid, these wonderful people do this important work not for wages or praise.  They, without exception, do it to make a little more bearable for our most vulnerable citizens.

Occasionally, the judges would sponsor a meal to thank the guardians.  I struggled to find a different way to say “Thank You” each time – in a way that would convey the deep appreciation I and all the judges had for the hard, essential service these wonderful folks perform.  Finally, I found an Irish blessing that conveyed my gratitude completely: 

May God grant you many years to live,
For sure he must be knowing.
The earth has angels all too few.
And heaven is overflowing. 

As we walk our different paths in this life, we are blessed to meet individuals who do our Creator’s work on earth.  I am fortunate, indeed, to have met and worked with several folks like these:  Guardians ad Litem. 

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Next week:  On-Call Weekends