Welcome to the Ayo & Iken legal roundtable. We tackle the toughest legal issues with down-to-earth commentary you can use from our expert panel of attorneys from Tampa Bay, Orlando, to Miami.
In this edition, we take on the topic of staying on the good side of the judge. As you will see, our attorneys view courtroom decorum as a major factor in presenting your best case in court. It is easy to get on a judge’s bad side through questionable behavior, which could lead to being disliked. While our attorneys say it is a judge’s mandate to remain impartial, there are standards they expect and falling short can affect your case.
We talked about the issue with New Port Richey Attorneys Bruce Przepis and Jeremy Simons; Orlando Attorneys Jason Ponder and Jennifer Schulte; Tampa Attorneys Jeana Vogel and Crystal Phillips; St. Petersburg/Clearwater Attorney Claudia Blackwell, and our Managing Partner Howard Iken. Here is what they had to say:
What if I get a judge that doesn’t like me?
Unfortunately, you are stuck. The only way you can change a judge is if you recuse them but there has to be some sort of wrongdoing or bias that is shown and that’s not always easy to do. A judge has to make a decision one way or another and you’re not going to win everything. And there are some cases where one side comes out on top every time but it is largely based on the facts. Honestly, there can be cases where a judge may not like a person based on their actions. I’ve seen that. But it’s based on what they have done and the way they acted in court. It pays to always be respectful. You want the judges to like you. They are making major decisions that are going to affect you for the rest of your life. You need to be respectful, courteous, and kind and put your best foot forward at all times.
This happens more than you would think. That is probably why people regularly ask us how they can request another judge or move the case to another county. Most of the time you cannot do either. So it is important to think carefully into the situation and deal with it the best you can. Sometimes we get a judge that appears to like one attorney more than the other. That is a fact of life in some cases and we simply deal with it.
A lot of times people feel like the judge does not like them. Judges are for the most being impartial and applying the rules before them as well as public policies. There are some limited circumstances where a judge truly is biased. At that point it is important to evaluate each specific circumstance that makes you to believe that bias is taking place with your attorney and decide whether it is appropriate to file a motion to disqualify the judge. I strongly discourage making a motion to disqualify a judge unless you truly know you will be successful. You just never know if a judge has been teetering on an issue in the case that could come down against you later because of how difficult you made things.
I could not agree with you more Jeana! A Motion to Recuse is a serious thing. You should only consider filing one if you are sure of success. Fortunately there are some standards that govern whether a judge must recuse themselves. Your attorney should be a pretty good sounding board whether a successful recusal is on the radar.
So I am gathering that courtroom decorum is important. Is that the case?
It is so important. Definitely do not speak out until you are asked to. You speak when you are told. Please don’t sigh or scribble angrily on a notepad. Let me do the talking and when the judge or opposing attorney asks you a question then you respond. Just try to keep as calm a face as possible. For example, I had a client one day who starting making comments without being addressed by the court or the opposition. The judge actually kicked her out of his chambers for her to cool down. I ended up having a good outcome in her case but that behavior is just something I don’t like to see.
A client’s demeanor in the courtroom is extremely important. It’s really one of the most important aspects in any proceeding. You are being judged based upon how you act and react to certain clashes. I like to let my clients know that their demeanor should be on an even keel. You don’t want ups and downs. Things can get emotional and I’m not saying that is never a factor, but you need to be reserved. Take your emotions and put them in a place where you are going to be able to get your story and your testimony out without letting emotions overly creep in. What you don’t want to do is have a question posed to you by opposing counsel in which you answer in a rage. You don’t want a question asked that makes you unable to rationally come up with an answer and let your emotions fuel your behavior.
The “simple things” are all important. You may not know it but the judge does see you at every moment while you are in the courtroom. The things you can do to sabotage your case include rolling your eyes, making loud sighs, shaking your head side to side, or general looks of disgust and anger. I have seen judges turn against one side or the other based on these types of reactions. Some judges believe your lack of control translates into a lack of sound judgment. People should try to control themselves at all costs.
I always advise my client to address the court professionally and address the opposing counsel and other party professionally. You don’t talk out, no rolling eyes, no huffing. If I find my client really has done nothing wrong and a judge does not like them I would make sure to advise the client when we go into the courtroom. But if it reaches a certain level and you feel that the judge personally dislikes your client and is ruling against them maybe in a manner that they shouldn’t be there are ways to address the court. It then becomes a conversation with the client. The client can make the decision to try to recuse a judge by filing a motion. It is never guaranteed but it is an option.
You need to be on your best behavior. Judges are watching demeanor as much as they are watching testimony. You need to control any type of snickers, laughs, or shaking your head. Judges will not like that. In family law, you generally don’t have a jury in front of you, you have a judge. If a judge doesn’t like you, it is very, very difficult. You can’t just say the judge doesn’t like me so I want a different judge. It doesn’t happen that way. Every time you are in front of that judge you have to feel like you are above reproach because judges can get set off pretty easily. You have to know the likes and dislikes of a judge, and a good attorney is going to know the judges in their circuits.
Do you see it as an attorney’s role to discuss courtroom behavior with a client prior to facing the judge?
I view handling family law cases as a team effort, so I really think it is incumbent on me to prepare my client to make them understand what policies the judge has and make them understand there is a certain decorum that is expected to be followed in a courtroom. It may be as simple as referring to the judge as sir, ma’am, or your honor. Most judges run a tight courtroom. They expect people to not be rude. The client also always needs to remember that they are in front of a judge. So raising of eyebrows, shrugging of shoulders, coming across with a demeanor of lacking approval, could result in a judge concluding he or she does not like that person very much. A sure sign that someone’s demeanor is having an impact on proceedings can be when a judge gives a warning. There have even been instances where I have written notes to clients that they are doing something that is hurting their case. So it really is a constant team effort to make sure the best attitude is put forward in the courtroom.
The thing to remember is that you can recover from a bad situation such as a judge that has a poor opinion of you. I have seen people turn around the situation time and time again. I like the comment Bruce made about it being a team effort. It really is. You should take to time to use your attorney as a sounding board. If something is going wrong with the judge’s demeanor you should definitely discuss with your attorney some possible ways to approach the situation.
This sounds like a really serious issue and I learned a lot listening to our group discuss how to approach it. I would like to wrap up by expressing a big thank you for giving all of your opinions. Meanwhile we hope to see our readers come back to the Ayo and Iken roundtable. See you then !
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