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Courtroom Etiquette: Like Dinner Etiquette Only More Terrifying

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…

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Calling Student “Loser” Results In Higher Scholastic Achievement? Nope, But It Might Be A Lawsuit

During the course of my many, many, many years of formal schooling I’ve come across the full gamut of teachers.  From the rare ones who go above and beyond to motivate and inspire young minds to the burnt-out ones who just couldn’t care less about the well-being of their students, and all the average ones in between (who’ve I’ve always suspected to have the most interesting of lives outside of school), I can safely say that I’ve seen them all.  Well, actually it’s more accurate to say almost all anyway.

Apparently, I’ve been fortunate enough to never encounter the outwardly abusive kind of teachers who have been publicized in the news lately, you know the kind I’m talking about (don’t be thrown off by the site’s name, it’s just a blog).  Nope, I’m just that fortunate as it seems all the hot teachers started getting teaching licenses after I left middle school, I’m so lucky…  Just joking by the way.  I’m well-aware that when a person is as young as some of the students in these cases, the damage caused by a sexual relationship with a trusted older teacher can brew a lot of misconstrued feelings about love that the student might not be old enough to comprehend fully, despite how awesome these relationships can be (joking again, please, I don’t want any angry emails).

Anyway, back to the point of this post.  There are some teachers who can just be verbally abusive jerks to their students.  The actions alleged to have been committed by the North Carolina teacher in the story I linked to in the first paragraph, if true, would safely qualify as being such a jerk.  Supposedly the teacher had been singling out a female student from his class and calling her a “loser.”  The student’s mother got the school’s principal to stop the name-calling for a while, but it returned and extended into the student’s graded assignments as well, where the teacher allegedly wrote “loser” on her returned assignments, and in some cases even deducting credit from the student due to her being loser.  Now that’s just stepping over the line – call me what you want, but leave my grade alone!  To be fair, some people have defended the teacher’s actions stating that it’s a method he uses to relate with his students, though none have come forward to state so publicly.

The reason I bring this story up is because it got me thinking about emotional distress.  People have a misconception on how damage awards work for emotional distress, specifically that getting money for emotional distress is easy.

Under the law, you can get emotional distress by proving the defendant either intentional or negligently inflicted emotional distress onto you.

The standard for intentional infliction of emotional distress is that you simply must prove that the defendant actually intended to cause you emotional harm (meaning he or she did it on purpose).  While this may seem like the easier standard to prove in this case, ask any attorney and you’ll find that proving someone acted intentionally isn’t as simple as it may seem.  Any episode of Law and Order will tell you that.

The standard for negligent infliction of emotional distress is trickier, but in some sense easier since you won’t need to show the defendant intended to harm your emotions; just that he accidentally did so.  One way to get a damage award under this standard is to be physically harmed by someone else’s actions or to be a close relative (meaning immediate family) present at the time the person you’re related to was physically harmed.

Essentially, proving emotional distress here hinges on whether you can show some form of physical harm.  Therefore the absence of physical harm can spell the difference between getting an award for emotional distress or not.  Of course these laws can vary from state to state; for instance, some jurisdictions will allow these types of damage awards if they find that a person suffered a “great emotional trauma,” which is even more ambiguous.  In any case, this standard can be hard to prove as well.  Therefore under this view of the law, despite how outrageous the alleged conduct of this teacher may be, an emotional distress award may not be given to the victim or her family.  Why, you ask?  Well, try to identify the physical harm suffered by the student or the parent.  Can’t find any?  It can be tough, but not necessarily impossible.

We all read the news and we know that chances are, in cases like these, once a story starts to gain some publicity, lawsuits are sure to follow shortly after.  Not that I have an axe to grind, but as a student who had to suffer through many awful teachers, if these allegations are true, then I think these people deserve some sort of compensation for their pain.  And that’s where a good lawyer comes in.  Because even though the student may not seem to have suffered physically, perhaps the verbal assaults caused her anxiety or insomnia or any other manner of emotional distress that manifested itself as a physical harm or affliction.  A skilled attorney will be able to ask the proper questions and conduct a proper investigation to ensure justice is served.  It’s no surprise that personal injury cases consistently top the list of cases received by LegalMatch because most of the time legal laypersons just don’t know what to investigate.

See?  Lawyers can have a purpose sometimes.

The Mysticism of Expert Testimony

As a race, we have certainly tried some very unorthodox ways of going about justice.  When confronted with something impossible to know, whether the origin of the universe or a man’s guilt, we tend to drift into rituals, mysticism and speculation.

Take for example the medieval trial by ordeal.  One common way to determine whether someone was guilty of a crime was to make them retrieve an object from a pot of boiling water.  If their wounds healed, they were considered innocent.  Common moral sensibility and actual biblical doctrine aside, people believed God would miraculously spare the wrongly accused from the pain of an unjust trial.

Good thing we’ve moved to a higher plane of cultural enlightenment, right?  Well, we still seem to hold people, even presidents, to a very strict form of oathtaking.  Also, the black gowns of judges and the mortarboards and golden tassels of college graduates can be traced all the way back to pagan mysticism.  If you asked most people, they would probably point to England, only the most immediate parent in a long succession of cultural forefathers.  If you ask me, nothing has really changed.  We apparently just have shorter memories.

Our new modern paragons have made us forget.  They’re especially effective this time around.  Sixty years ago, some questioned whether they would need a phone in their household at all.  Today, we buy Lady Gaga ringtones by the thousands just to get our gizmos to make different sounds.  Each one costs an entire day’s worth of pay according to the world’s median income.  And the immaculate force that has likewise transformed the world hasn’t failed to make an appearance in the courtroom.  It descends from on high to render judgment, just like the reigning force did in medieval times with trials by ordeal.

From the OJ Simpson trial on down, almighty science is called upon to answer the unanswerable.  Instead of clergymen with golden crosses prepping their tongs, scientists in white lab coats go about scrubbing crime scenes for hair follicles, ballistics clues and DNA evidence.  When something like DNA, for example, is argued to show something, no juror with any technology in their pocket seems capable of denying its scientific soundness.  I mean, what could be more scientific than DNA?  The focus seems to be on the magic of the science itself, not the logic of what the evidence actually shows.  Once someone’s blood shows up in a crime scene, for example, there is little attention left over for the question of whether or not the blood evidence actually means that the accused did the crime.  Bleeding is still not a crime in the U.S., but experiment and reason don’t always go hand in hand.

Furthermore, the experiments themselves aren’t always sound.  Specific crime labs across the country are famous for their bogus and doctored results.   But when the experts show up in court, it’s always with an easily digested conclusion for us common folk sitting in the jury.  Under the tutelage of our appointed seers, countless verdicts are rendered that are just as unjust as an innocent man dipping his arm in scalding water.  Some estimate that when the oracles of science deign to testify, they overstep their bounds as often as 60% of the time.

If that’s true, trial by ordeal may have even been a superior method.  According to a recent article that has been a matter of some controversy, it had an interesting way of producing a correct result.  The theory is that the accused, believing in the ordeal was reliable, would be less willing to submit to it if they were guilty.  And since only an innocent man would subject himself to it instead of confessing, priests would know to lighten the test when it actually needed to be performed.  The key, therefore, was the commonly held belief that the system actually worked.  So whether our illumination comes from science or religion, people are prompted to voluntarily divulge their story when they personally believe in an unfailing eye of truth.

At least, that’s how it worked ages ago.  The most important ingredients of faith-based justice are conspicuously lacking from what’s considered the most evolved legal system in the world.  First, the plea bargaining system is viewed as a game of risk minimization rather than a way for the guilty to gain some measure of moral absolution.  Thus, even the innocent sometimes plead out while on the other hand the guilty often just try to get the best lawyers.  While the masses in the jury are certainly just as enthralled with science, it is simply not as good at inspiring remorse in the heart of the wrongdoer.

More importantly, science seems to operate differently on the higher tiers of society.  The effectiveness of trial by ordeal depended on those administering the trial realizing that most who submitted were innocent.  They would then soften the test, which showed that on some level they didn’t share the belief with the common man that divine force itself was what made it fair.  In our society, the adversarial system prevents those who perpetuate the system from ever showing the same sort of restraint.  They are actually the most ardent in the belief that two opposing sides clashing at full force is the best route to truth.  Instead of revealing the smoke and mirrors to juries, judges are clamoring to remain updated on the latest methods.  The highest in the land even seem to suggest that when jurors contradict the science presented, it’s an incorrect verdict that they’re nevertheless entitled to because of that pesky Constitution.

So, it’s starting to look a lot like the Dark Ages.  Even belief systems prided on objectivity and rationale have an irrational side.  Only now our master is an unfeeling one that makes no claim whatsoever to questions of right and wrong.  The only force thought sufficient to reveal the truth at trial is human sophistry.  I sometimes wonder how we’re going to look a thousand years from now.  Like trial by ordeal, people may be scoffing at the irony that our system actually worked.

Legal Technicalities: A Blight To Our Legal System?

An interesting case caught my eye the other day that made me think about the effectiveness of our criminal justice system.  So let me bounce a question off of all of you: if someone was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison, do you think his or her entire trial should be redone if the jury were never sworn in?

Please, one at a time…  The cacophony of replies is defining…

Just kidding, the only time that ever happens is when you ask it to a classroom full of sycophantic first-year law students.  But people do have very divergent point of views on this matter, especially when the exact case I described just happened to a Michigan man.

Apparently the man, Timothy Becktel, was sentenced way back in 2008 for assault with intent to commit murder and was recently granted a new trial because the jury never took an oath of honesty.  Essentially he’s being retried by sheer stroke of luck brought to him by the court’s mistake, or for those who love Law and Order, Becktel’s getting a second chance due to a legal technicality.

Here’s a quick courtroom refresher for those of you fortunate enough to have never been called for jury duty.  All jurors are required to take the juror’s oath prior to being able to serve on a jury.  By taking the oath, the juror essentially swears that they’ll uphold the law and deliver an honest verdict in line with the law and facts of the case – jury nullification not withstanding of course, but that’s a post for another time.

Those convicted of committing a crime and getting off on technicalities has always been in the legal news in some form or another.  Usually in the context of evidence being obtained by police without a proper warrant or being admitted into a case in violation of state or federal rules of evidence on hearsay, and usually to the outrage of the opposing party along with the public in general.  The question always revolves around whether such outcomes are right and in line with delivering justice to the parties involved.  This question becomes especially pointed and heated in cases of murder and child molestation.

The answer to this question really involves delving into the public policy reasons why we are legal system is set up the way that it is, specifically what were the goals our America’s forefathers sought to achieve when they created the system.

Though it can be pretty infuriating when someone who appears to be guilty of a crime is allowed to walk free because some court clerk misspelled a name, the reason we have all these court procedures in place is to ensure justice is served.  And yes it can seem pretty unjust to allow someone to get off because of a silly court mistake, but justice means not only ensuring the guilty are punished, but that the innocent are cleared and freed.  The reason we have all these seemingly arbitrary rules is to weed out things like bad or false evidence, prosecutorial and police misconduct, and ethical violations in general.  From this perspective, these arbitrary rules hopefully can seem less arbitrary.

It’s also good to remember that it’s also quite rare to see the type of Law and Order-esque technicality injustices happen in real life.  The courts rarely allow convicts to go free as the opposing party can still do things like appeal the decision to higher courts and so forth.  Not to say they still can’t happen, of course.  Resentencing?  Come on…

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4 Ways to Avoid Digging Your Own Grave in Court

If you’re a party to a lawsuit or a criminal defendant, it’s generally a good idea to be seen and not heard. Unless specifically called on to speak, parties are well-advised to sit quietly (but attentively) at their table.

Some people, however, think they might be able to help their cases by engaging in some rather unorthodox conduct while in court. You should resist this temptation, whatever it is, should it arise. However, here are a few specific examples of things you shouldn’t do if you want to have a chance at winning your case:

1. Don’t physically assault your lawyer in front of the jury

For a person who’s been accused of a crime, emotions often run high. They might find it difficult to think and behave rationally. This is understandable. However, when you’re in open court, in full view of the jury, and engage in the exact same conduct that you’re currently on trial for, you’ve probably sent yourself up the river.

A man, who is accused of assaulting a police officer, the officer’s police dog, and a civilian, physically assaulted his own defense attorney in court, in the presence of the jury that was to decide his fate. Actually, he attacked his lawyer twice; first slapping him in the face, then (after being shackled) throwing a microphone at him. The lawyer was not injured in either attack.

To his credit, the deputy public defender did not let the violent conduct of an ungrateful client interfere with his job of providing the best defense possible: after the judge denied his request for a mistrial, he reminded the jury that they had to render a verdict based only on the facts presented during the trial, not their emotions. This goes to show that most public defenders, even if they don’t like many of their clients, will still vigorously defend their legal rights.

2. Don’t fake a heart attack hoping to force a mistrial

This is a bad idea.

As long as you demonstrate the minimum level of mental competence to stand trial, you generally have a constitutional right to represent yourself in criminal proceedings. Rarely, however, is this a good idea.

That isn’t to say that it’s impossible for a non-lawyer to mount a successful defense when representing himself in a criminal trial, but it will take a lot of work for that person to become familiar with local court procedures. Oh, and your defense strategy shouldn’t hinge on faking a heart attack in court, as amusing as it may be for the rest of us.

When representing yourself, you still have to comply with all of the applicable rules of court. It just so happens that practically every court in the world has rules against deliberately disrupting the proceedings, and it becomes readily apparent that the defendant in the video linked above did himself no favors. He was left with the choice of admitting that he faked a medical emergency, or going through with the charade as long as possible, thereby letting the prosecution continue to present its case without any rebuttal from the defense.

3. Don’t call on your fans to flood the judge’s computer with emails

Kevin Trudeau, the man who hawks his books on natural “cures” through once-ubiquitous infomercials, is currently facing legal action by the Federal Trade Commission. The author of the popular book Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You To Know About has for years been criticized by medical professionals for encouraging people to forego real medicine in favor of natural “treatments” which are ineffective at best, and dangerous at worst.

Hoping to accomplish…something, he called on his supporters to send as many emails as they could to the U.S. District Judge presiding over the case. In a short period of time, the judge received hundreds of emails, causing his computer to slow down and crash. Rather than causing the judge to see the light, and dismiss all of the charges against a man who is clearly being persecuted by the big, mean pharmaceutical industry (“oh, a sarcasm detector, that’s a useful invention!”), as Mr. Trudeau might have hoped, it instead prompted the judge to hold him in contempt of court and sentence him to 90 days in jail. Ouch.

4. Don’t file repeated frivolous lawsuits, and (allegedly) suborn perjury

How can a blog post about legal grave-digging be complete without a mention of our good friend, Orly Taitz? Followers of the legal blogosphere are probably familiar with all of the big news stories about her, but here’s a quick recap:

Orly Taitz, a dentist and lawyer in Southern California, began filing lawsuits shortly before the 2008 presidential election, alleging that Barack Obama is constitutionally ineligible to serve as President because he was born in Kenya. The case was dismissed. After having a few more cases dismissed, a federal judge thought enough was enough, and fined her $20,000 for filing frivolous lawsuits. More recently, some people who would have served as witnesses in her lawsuits, had they gone to trial, have claimed that she instructed them to lie on the stand. Finally, she’s currently under investigation by the State Bar of California, which is reportedly considering disbarring her, or at least suspending her license to practice law.

Where to begin? Well, first of all, as an attorney, she has a duty of competence to her clients (some of whom have included military personnel who claim that their orders to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan are void because Pres. Obama is not the legitimate president), and she has shown that she does not understand even the most basic rules of court procedure. Separate from that, she also has an ethical duty to not file frivolous actions. Multiple courts have already informed her that her claims have no legal or factual basis, and, yet, she persists.

She is now paying for her actions with her credibility as an attorney, and they may now cost her law license.

What have we learned from all this? Well, the main takeaway should be that, when it comes to court proceedings, there are some very strict rules that must be followed. They may not always make sense at first glance, but they usually exist for a good reason. If I had to guess, I would say that some people listed above (besides the ones who are clearly mentally ill) are hoping for a big, Hollywood-style trial. Sadly, perhaps, those trials don’t really exist.