Greetings. I am your local courthouse, and I have a message for all of you. If I sound old and uptight in the advice that follows, there's a reason for that: I AM old and uptight -- and you would have it no other way.
If you were looking for a no-frills resolution, you could have just agreed to flip a coin. If you wanted a laid-back approach to sorting things out, you could have taken your disagreement to that guy who sells artisanal, organic fiber pinwheels at the Sunset Valley Farmer's Market and let him decide your fate based on his gut feel. But you didn't do that. You (or your opposing party) very deliberately came to me with a dispute that you deem significant, a dispute that you have not been able to work out among yourselves. And since you brought your fight to my house, you must abide by my rules.
Dress for the occasion. By dressing for the occasion, I don't just mean no hats, no shorts, and no flip-flops. It goes beyond that. By bringing your dispute to the courthouse, you have invited -- even authorized -- others to size things up. That's precisely why you're here. How you present yourself matters. If you are one of those folks (whether lawyer or litigant) who likes to bang on about how looks shouldn't matter and that's why Lady Justice wears a blindfold, get real.
I don't care if you're carrying an extra thirty pounds of weight on you. But if you (or your attorney) look like you're carrying thirty pounds of weed in the trunk of your car, that can create an impression. And that impression can distract people from things that are actually important. And I don't care if you have an oversized nose, but people might care if you have an oversized sense of entitlement. If you come to me for your day of reckoning in sweatpants and a t-shirt that says, "Dance to my beat" (yes, people do this type of thing every single day; and someone did this exact thing earlier this month), people might get the impression that you are that especially tedious blend of self-absorbed and tone deaf. And that would not be their fault. After all, when you choose a t-shirt with that message to wear to court, isn't the whole point to broadcast to the world that they are to operate on your terms?
So, dress like you're going somewhere that expects a certain level of formality, like church, for example -- but not one of those contemporary churches where twenty-somethings go dressed like they're heading out to the club in the trendy warehouse district. I'm talking about old-school church, complete with hymns, stained glass windows and pews. You know, the kind of church where Grammy and Grampy used to go every Sunday.
In case you're feeling put out by all of this, keep this in mind: If the judge still has to wear an arcane black robe in the courtroom, it's not unreasonable for you to be required to put on something that would pass for your Sunday best.
Remember where you are. I know going to court can make for a stressful day, but there's a time and place for undoing the top button of your jeans, sprawling out on the floor, and losing yourself in a bag of fast food. And that's at the end of the day in the comfort and privacy of your living room, not during the lunch break in the halls outside of the courtroom. Again, I see this type of thing. All. The. Time.
This isn't your house; this is my house. And I am not some youth hostile you are crashing in while you backpack your way across Europe; I am a cornerstone of American Democracy. You are here on very important business. If you want the judge, and the court administrators, employees and staff to take you and your case seriously, then you need to act like you do, too. Behave in a way that both commands and affords respect -- not just inside the actual courtroom, but in the halls outside of it, as well. The hallway is not your private green room. You are not "back stage," so to speak. Your empty Super Big Gulp cup doesn't serve as some sort of invisibility cloak. Everyone can see you sitting cross-legged and barefoot on the floor as they pass through the halls to get to the courtroom.
Leave your kids at home. Some people believe it will give them an edge if they bring their children with them to the courthouse. They believe it makes them look more human, more sympathetic, more likeable -- particularly when they are in court on a family law matter. They could not be more wrong. Rather than making them look like caring, concerned parents, it makes them look like they either don't have the requisite discretion to identify situations that are wholly inappropriate for their children, or they're willing to risk traumatizing them on the chance it might help their case.
Unfortunately, kids usually know that Mommy and Daddy are fighting over them. Bringing them to the courthouse forces them to be pawns in a war they should be protected from, not injected into. And no, it is not a defense that your kids "hate" their other parent and totally side with you. That actually counts as more evidence that they have become collateral damage in your relationship battle with your ex.
Unless you are coming to court to formalize an adoption, make child care arrangements for your kids. (And no, having your sister Candace come along to play video games with them in the hallway while you're inside the courtroom duking it out with your ex doesn't count.)
Be on time. Nothing says "I think I'm more important than everyone else here" like being late to court. Sure, sometimes it cannot be helped; but let's be honest, most of the time it can. Unless you were in a car accident on the way to court, I'm guessing your tardiness can be chalked up to poor planning or an insufficient amount of Give a F*ck. Both of those are on you.
Whether you're a party, an attorney or a judge, keeping people waiting is not only bad manners, it also has very real economic implications on everyone else who managed their time properly. The lawyers and expert witnesses who are in that courtroom waiting for you are on the clock at rates that are likely hundreds of dollars an hour, billed in six-minute increments. So, if you stroll in even a few minutes late, at least take a quick look around the room and do the math on how much you owe everyone for that extra cup of coffee you had this morning before hopping in your car and heading to court.
Set your alarm. Build in some buffer time. Remember, traffic is not a surprise occurrence; it's an every day reality. Plan accordingly.
Be prepared. If you're an attorney, going to court should be your last stop in trying to get a good outcome for your client, not the first time you peruse the file. The time to familiarize yourself with the facts of the case and engage with opposing counsel for the first time is not in the hallway outside the courtroom ten minutes before Go Time.
Don't use scheduling a hearing as a way to force yourself to give the file your time and attention. You can (and should) block out some time to dedicate to this matter without having to involve the judge, the court staff, and opposing counsel. Your clients and the entire judicial system deserve a more disciplined approach from you. If you figured out how to manage your time well enough to get through law school and take (and pass) the bar exam, you can figure out how to more efficiently and effectively represent your clients.
Act like a grownup. If you're a party, don't go mixing it up with the opposing party in the hallways outside of the courtroom. Don't go looking for opportunities to get in a snarky comment or a barb. Don't engage in public yelling or crying for sport. This isn't some 1990s episode of Jerry Springer or Court TV. This is your private life on public display. Do your part to keep things respectable.
If you're an attorney, don't be lazy or play dirty. Don't file motions filled with falsehoods. Of course you are expected to advocate for your clients to the greatest extent possible, but that doesn't give you license to play fast and lose with the facts. This is a game of skill not a seminar in creative writing. Do the best you can with the facts you really have, not ones you make up. Both your client and your reputation will be better served as a result.
If you're a judge and you want everyone to respect you and your rulings, treat people in a manner that engenders respect. The lawyers who appear before you have to attend seminars billed as a "View from the Bench" where judges rattle off everything that everyone does that gets on their nerves. Here's an overdue view from counsel table: If you want litigants and attorneys alike to come away from your courtroom with a sense of the sort of behavior that is and is not acceptable in civilized society, then model that behavior yourself. Don't berate people just because you know you can and further know they have to take it from you.
Your job doesn't give you the authority to take out all of your everyday life frustrations on everyone in your courtroom. You're a judge, not an abusive, dysfunctional spouse with anger management issues. If a party or a lawyer needs to be checked on his bullshit, by all means, do so. But keep the content and the scale of the ass-chewing tailored to the infraction.
Being under the influence of power is much like being under the influence of anything else: You are often rendered unable to properly size up the extent of your impairment, or even the existence of any impairment at all. Remember, Black Robe Disease is real. Do what you can to withstand succumbing to it.
Okay. This lecture is officially over. Sorry if I came across like a cranky old-timer, but like I said, I am old, and you'd be cranky, too, if you had to listen to all the stuff I have to listen to since the birth of this great nation of ours. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go straighten out some dimwitted self-described "patriots" who keep braying on about their Second Amendment rights to buy guns at Wal-Mart. Oh -- one last rule for you to follow as you leave the courthouse at the end of the day: Stay off my lawn.