A courtroom can be a pretty intimidating place. Everyone is dressed up in suits. There’s a bailiff in the corner who can place people under arrest if they act out. Not to mention the judge, who’s treated like a god. But this intimidation factor can feel like it’s multiplied tenfold when you’re the one on trial for a criminal offense. However, the biggest reason why most people are intimidated by courtrooms is that they just feel like they don’t belong there. So what’s a person to do? Simple. Just follow these basic rules of courtroom etiquette and you’ll be fine.
Now before I jump into the list, I just want to preface it by saying a lot of these may seem like common sense – and they are. However, there are a lot of people who seem to forget how to apply common sense even in the most dire of situations. For instance, if you’re unfortunately convicted of an offense, when you have to show up to prison to serve your sentence, don’t drive there drunk. Now you might be thinking to yourself, “Who’d be dumb enough to do that?” Yes, who indeed. And on that delightful reminder of the importance of common sense, here are some rules you should always observe while in court.
First Rule: Dress in formal business attire. A no-brainer, but one that people can forget. Courtrooms are very formal places steeped in age old customs and traditions that still influence it today. One of these ancient traditions is formal attire. This tradition started way back in the old English courts, which our current common law justice system is derived from. People would dress in their “Sunday Best” to show respect for the court and the law – feel free to extrapolate some religious overtones from this tradition, as well.
Second Rule: When addressing the judge, do so by saying, “Your Honor.” This one probably sounds completely ridiculous to most people, at least to me it did. When I was younger, the idea of having to address another person using such a referential term used to make me really angry, especially in light of all the judicial abuse cases reported in the news. My thinking was that if everyone had to call you “Your Honor” before even be able to speak with you, of course you’d get a big head. But as I learned, this again is a custom steeped in a tradition of respect. The reason you address the judge by this term isn’t necessarily just because he or she is the judge (though that’s part of it, too); the real reason is that when you’re speaking to the judge, you’re speaking to the law itself. Sound funny, right? “The law is an incorporeal entity created by people and the judge is just a person, not the law,” is what you might be thinking. This is true, but when the judge dons the black robe, the judge actually becomes the law itself or if you prefer, a representative of the law. You see, the black color of the robe isn’t just a stylistic choice; the color is supposed to represent neutrality and fairness. In essence, that the person wearing the robe has now put aside all his or her biases and will adjudicate all matters before the court as the law would dictate. That’s not to say of course that judicial abuse still doesn’t happen, because it does. But hopefully this little tidbit will make saying those two words a lot easier for those of you who feel uneasy about it like I did.
Third Rule: Don’t bring food, beverages, or turn on/use any noise-producing electronics into court. Really, do I have to enumerate on this one? How respectful do you think it will appear to the court if during your arraignment if you’re biting into a burger while downing a coke and texting your buddies that the judge is a jerk?
Fourth Rule: Don’t bring audio or video recording devices into the court. Honestly, I never understood this one. The rationales for this are two-fold. One, it’s a rule primarily directed a jurors to prevent them from reporting to outside sources what’s going on in trial and during their deliberations. And two, it’s because traditional court rules say so. Not very good reasons, but reasons nonetheless. I mean most criminal trials are public and journalists are allowed into the court to report on its happenings, so why can’t they or the public bring in anything to record it. Oh yeah… I forgot. Actually, this rule might change one day in the future as many see it as antiquated. So stay tuned folks, but for now just don’t do it.
Fifth Rule: When it doubt, don’t do it. This is my universal catch all rule. If you suspect that exhibiting a certain behavior or saying a certain comment may be perceived as disrespectful to the judge or court, just don’t do it. It’s better to be safe than to be sorry, as the old adage goes. Remember judges have the power to hold people in contempt, which can mean fines, but generally is usually a public tongue-lashing in front of everyone in the courtroom.
And if you’re really unsure of how to act in court, feel free to ask the court information desk. Or better yet, you can also go on this new fangled invention called the Internet and check your local court’s website for proper courtroom etiquette. Ahhhh, the marvels of our modern world…