The Halls of Justice
I was at the Hinds County Courthouse this week. We had achieved an Agreed Order earlier in the day, so all I had to do was quickly visit with the Judge to have the Order signed. With my work for the morning being a little mindless, I observed what was happening around me closer than usual and have these thoughts about showing up for your big day.
You know, the courthouse can be an intimidating place if you are not familiar with it. When you come in, there are about three armed deputies standing up front and a large, airport looking medal detector stands in the way of you and the elevator. It all feels so formal. It was raining pretty heavily so we were negotiating umbrellas as well. Everyone empties their pockets, and don’t even think about bringing in your pocket knife or a cell phone. It will be left at the front door in a brown envelope with the rest and you will be given a number. Place your mobile on silent unless you want everyone to hear your Gangnam Style ringtone. If you think it will help you, go to the courthouse a week or so before your hearing and check things out. Sit in on a hearing with your Judge. Get a feel for place. Always be humble and respectful. Let the lawyers be the loud and flamboyant ones if necessary. We are better at it than you anyway.
If you are a litigant, it is normal to be a little freaked out while you are in Court, but let me make a couple of suggestions. First, look your best. Dress like you are going to church –a conservative, traditional church, not one where people have on flip flops and shorts. Also, be nice to everyone. If you are rude to the bailiffs, clerks and people at the vending machines, it has a way of leaking back to the Judge. Be on your best behavior from the minute you get out of your car until the minute you get back in it. You can quietly freak out off state property. Also, if you are a smoker, try to walk around the corner of the building out of everyone’s site. Smoking is gross anyway. Just ask my daughters. If you have any tattoos or non-traditional piercings, cover them up and take them out.
The magic in the halls of the courthouse sometimes get people interested in settlement when they have otherwise been immovable. There is something about walking under Bible verses before entering a state funded building that flips a switch in people. Expect it. It is a good thing. Settlements are almost always better than a Judge’s ruling because they are certain. Judge’s rulings can be appealed, which costs more time, energy, money and emotion. If your lawyer is prepared, he or she will have the ability to reduce an agreement to writing quickly so you can leave with some finality, even if just for the day.
I always recommend that people bring a book or magazine when they come to Court. Our judicial system put the wait in “hurry up and wait.” Just because you are on the Court’s calendar, you will likely not be the only hearing the Judge has and you may not go first. Also, if you are the only hearing on the docket, stuff comes up. Lawyers sometimes show up unexpected and people get flat tires and have babies and are living a life independent of your circumstances. Also, there is a good chance that your lawyer will not hate his adversary (sometimes we do). Friendly lawyers get things done. Polarized lawyers do not. If you are with me, I will never make a deal without your input. Most lawyers work the same way.
It is very usual for lawyers to speak with the Judge in their office or chambers. Don’t worry about it. Judge’s are people too and sometimes they like to small talk. While you may feel like you are at a party where you don’t know anyone, rest assured that business is being handled.
If they bailiff asks you to do something, do it. When your hearing begins, quietly take notes. Do not visibly respond to testimony if you can help it. When you are called to the stand, smile, be friendly. Pretend you are on a job interview. Include the Judge in the conversation you are having with the attorneys. Remember, he is the one you want to impress. Do not be argumentative with the attorney for the other side. It will not do you any good to be sarcastic or flippant. You can intelligently disagree with someone. If someone asks you a question, answer it. Do not respond with a question of your own. If elaborating on your answer helps you, do it, but if it doesn’t, don’t.