We know that our judiciary occupies a special place as an independent, co-equal branch of government, as evidenced by the fact that its role was written into the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. As Professor Lawrence Friedman of New England Law | Boston recently told us, when John Adams drafted our constitution, he could never have anticipated the vast universe of issues coming before the court in 2013.
But one thing is certain. Regardless of our State Courts not always having the technology or staffing levels essential for administering justice promptly, our courtrooms must maintain decorum both before jurors and the citizenry. More than a nicety, that decorum is essential for maintaining the dignity and credibility of what is from our vantage point, that branch of government that underpins the democratic process in a constitutional democracy.
So a recent conversation with Chief Justice Barbara Rouse of the Superior Court left us with few surprises. During the course of her 28 year career, she has had numerous opportunities to mentor newer judges. And here’s what she told us:
“I like to see judges using a formal opening and closing where the court officer calls people to attention. This has the effect of signaling that people have come into a dignified and solemn place that requires their best behavior. It brings people to attention; they have to stand and they have to stop talking.”
Chief Justice Rouse makes the important point that this decorum is an important predicate to good behavior, including lawyer civility and professionalism. Ensuring that the level of noise and activity is kept to an absolute minimum, she also advises newer judges to work with court staff, especially court officers, to minimize movement in and out of the courtroom.
It is important that those citizens serving on juries come out of the experience with respect for the judiciary. No nonsense in her approach, Chief Justice Rouse underscores the importance of civility, not tolerating counsel interrupting each other or the court. She’s also clear about counsel keeping their distance from a witness, unless showing an exhibit, and not moving too close to the jury rail.
In a previous post, we discussed the type of incivility that demeans the practice of law. As civility and professionalism fall under the umbrella of decorum, we cannot resist sharing with you something else Chief Justice Rouse told us. Recalling the words of the late Judge John Moriarty of Springfield, she said: “Every lawyer makes a first appearance before a judge with a deposit in the bank account of credibility. Every time that lawyer distorts, misrepresents, or engages in unprofessional conduct, the judge makes a withdrawal from the lawyer’s credibility account.”
One parting note. . . Chief Justice Rouse wants all of us to know that when a trial is over, judges often talk with jurors, who sometimes share their views of what they liked or didn’t like about a particular attorney. It turns out jurors do not like lawyers being rude or discourteous to the judge or witnesses.