While many people have seen courtrooms on television, not as many have actually been inside of a courtroom. It can be a very intimidating experience, especially if you don’t know what to expect. You may be wondering about the appropriate behavior for when you are sitting in the gallery or main area of the courtroom. Additionally, you may be anxious about how you should act when the judge enters the courtroom.
Proper etiquette is always essential when you are thinking about making a good impression in any situation. That is why it is especially important when you are in the courtroom. Whether your attorney specializes in white collar criminal defense work or blue collar criminal defense work, the standard of etiquette is the same in the courtroom, regardless of the type of case the judge is hearing.
That is why many courtrooms across the country have published rules of courtroom etiquette.
Respect for the Judge and Their Courtroom
One of the foremost rules of etiquette applies in the treatment of the judge. Remember that the judge has ultimate authority in the courtroom. Furthermore, the judge is the ultimate authority in the law. Those in the courtroom need to stand when the judge enters the courtroom and wait until the judge sits down before you can sit.
When addressing the court, an attorney must use the phrase, “May it please the court.” They will then provide the judge with their name, the name of their client and the reason they are before the court. Attorneys learn some of their courtroom etiquette from legal ethics classes they take in law school, and must also tell the whole truth when they are in the courtroom.
Proper Behavior by Attorneys
Attorneys should remember that, if the judge does make an error, they can point out the error to the judge - but must do so in a very respectful manner. And above all, the attorney should not be argumentative with the judge. Presenting the argument to the judge is important, but it must be done in a civil, non-combative manner.
Part of the information which attorneys are ethically bound to disclose is binding case law, and this must be disclosed even if the opposing counsel fails to provide that same information. Attorneys must remember that they are officers of the court. Because they are officers of the court, they must explain how the rule of law relates to the facts of their case. Being overly theatrical is frowned upon by judges, as is offering your opinion if you are an attorney.
Everyone who is in the courtroom must show proper respect to the judge. Whether you are an attorney who is representing a previously convicted felon or representing a corporation whose internal corporate investigations have revealed major violations of corporate compliance, you are under the same standards when it comes to showing respect to the judge and to their courtroom.
This means all attorneys, clients, jurors, spectators and witnesses need to be polite. They need to appear in the courtroom on time, be polite to the judge and others and wear appropriate clothing. Never raise your voice to the judge or be abrupt. Remember that the judge has the power in their courtroom. Certain instances of misbehavior can result in the judge holding you in contempt.
Appropriate clothing means attorneys should dress professionally. Male attorneys are generally expected to wear suit coats, and many female attorneys will wear suit coats also - though wearing a suit coat is not as much a requirement for women as it is for men. Even if female attorneys do not wear suit coats, they are expected to dress in a business-professional manner, meaning they will be wearing dresses, skirts or suits with either skirts or dress pants.
Proper Behavior by All Attendees at Court
Jurors and those in the gallery or main area of the courtroom should refrain from dressing in jeans and inappropriate or revealing clothing. Woman should refrain from wearing tops with spaghetti straps or from wearing strapless tops. Hats and sunglasses should also be removed prior to entering the courtroom.
Wearing appropriate clothing that follows the rules of etiquette demonstrates respect for the judge and their courtroom. The judge expects everyone in their courtroom to behave with the same amount of decorum, whether they are hearing a case for felony drug possession or for a violation of corporate compliance. Though every courtroom is different, another general rule is that facial piercings (except ear piercings) are prohibited in courtrooms.
Another way to show respect to the judge is the manner in which you address the judge. If you are a party to the lawsuit or criminal case, you should always address the judge as “your honor.” Anytime you answer questions which are posed by the judge, you should respond by saying, “Yes, ma’am” or “Yes, sir.”
There will likely be signs posted outside of the courtroom which you are going to enter. You should follow those signs and be cognizant of rules such as making sure you turn your cell phone off before entering the courtroom. Turn your phone off completely and don’t just put it on vibrate. Vibrating phones can still be heard, especially if they are placed on the table where the counsel is located.
Don’t ever bring weapons into a courthouse. Weapons of any sort in a courthouse are prohibited, as are recording devices of any kind. It should go without saying that illegal drugs are prohibited in a courthouse, but as a reminder, never bring illegal drugs into a courthouse.
If you are a witness in the courtroom, some important rules to remember are:
- Don’t just be on-time - be early.
- Get your hair cut if you need to.
- Men should be sure to wear a belt, tuck in their shirt and wear a shirt with a collar.
- Do not use negative body language, such as rolling your eyes or frowning when you don’t agree with the testimony of others.
- Never speak loudly in a courtroom unless you are testifying.
- You should make sure you are listening to the proceedings and making eye contact with the attorney questioning you when you are on the witness stand.
Never interrupt the judge or attorneys when they are questioning you while you are on the witness stand. If for any reason, you don’t understand a question, ask to have it clarified. Always answer any questions that you are asked by the judge or attorneys in a clear loud voice. If you are being asked a question, wait until the attorney has finished with the question before giving an answer. Remember to wait until the question has been asked and you have had a chance to ponder it before giving an answer.
The proceedings are being documented by a court reporter, so you don’t want to answer a question too quickly if you are unsure of how to answer it.
You should also be aware of your body language. Using blatant body language such as hand gestures when you are answering questions is frowned upon. It detracts from your answers to the questions and may be interpreted negatively by the judge or jury. Body language connotes emotion, and you want answers to testimony to be as objective and without emotion as possible.
Before the hearing begins, you should ask the bailiff or court attendant how the judge should be addressed. While most judges prefer to be addressed as “your honor,” some judges may prefer to be addressed in a different manner.
Don’t forget the adage that silence is golden. This is definitely applicable when you are in the courtroom. Because the proceedings of the court are often recorded electronically, any additional noise may result in a recording where the speaker is not able to be heard. Therefore, the judge will not tolerate any behavior that disrupts their courtroom, such as loud talking or laughing or the creation of other types of disturbances.
If someone is engaging in loud behavior and does not stop, courtroom security staff may remove those persons from the courtroom and the courthouse. It is even possible that the judge will hold those offenders in contempt of court.
General Rules of Courtroom Etiquette
Though some of these rules may not seem all that important to the overall outcome of the case, it is true that the use of good courtroom etiquette may make a difference in winning or losing a case. Showing the proper respect to the judge and their courtroom will enable you to show the judge that you understand the importance of the case that they are hearing and possibly make the process of appearing before the judge somewhat less intimidating.
As a summary of some important rules, you will want to follow these rules of etiquette:
- Be on time for court.
- Make sure you are very polite to the judge, attorneys and court staff.
- You should always be standing when you are talking to a judge. Attorneys always stand when they are talking to the judge or questioning a witness.
- Everyone in the courtroom must stand up or rise when the judge and jury enter the courtroom.
- If someone else is speaking, do not interrupt them.
- Attorneys that have an objection to what the opposing counsel is saying should state their objection to the judge, rather than the opposing counsel.
- Remember that any court proceeding is a very formal. If you are attending the proceeding or participating in it, you should be dressed for business.
- Do not eat or chew gum when you are in the courtroom.
- Be quiet when you are in the courtroom. Only talk when it is absolutely necessary, and keep your conversations to a minimum.
- Attorneys should always address the judge as “your honor” and never merely “you.” A judge will certainly not react favorably to the attorney who is not respectful at all times.
- Do not bring backpacks or large tote bags into the courthouse, as they can cause a delay in the process of checking through security.
- Children are generally not allowed in courtrooms unless they can be quiet.
- Cameras and photography are prohibited in the courtroom.
- If you are a party to the court proceedings and need to use courtroom equipment, you will need to request that equipment ahead of time.
- If you need to have the judge examine any pieces of documentation, you will need to hand it to the deputy in the courtroom rather than the judge or court reporter.
- As an attorney, if you need to conduct an experiment, make sure you get the permission of the judge prior to doing so.
Contempt of Court
If someone’s rude behavior rises to the level of causing a disturbance in the courtroom, the judge can hold that person in contempt of court. This type of contempt of court is considered criminal contempt. What that means is that the judge has the power to punish or cite that person for contempt. The punishments can include fines and/or incarceration. If incarceration is imposed, it is generally for a very short time and cannot be appealed, unless the jail time which the judge imposes is considered to be very excessive.
The concept behind criminal contempt is that the punishment is imposed because the person held in contempt has disrupted the proceedings of the court to the point where the functioning of the court is impeded. Some people may try to argue that holding someone in jail as a result of contempt is an eighth amendment violation against cruel and unusual punishment.
However, jailing for contempt is not considered to be cruel and unusual punishment, because there is a relationship between the punishment and the crime. Furthermore, the punishment of incarceration is generally just long enough to force someone to comply with an order by the court and is linked to that person’s intentional failure to come into compliance with the court order.
A humorous example of a case to avoid being held in contempt of court involved two attorneys representing clients where an investment firm sued an insurance company. Because the attorneys could not decide on a location where they should depose witnesses, the judge ordered that they meet on the steps of the courthouse at a prescribed time to play a game of rock, paper, scissors to come to a decision as to where the depositions should take place.
Two days after the judge issued his seemingly absurd ruling in response to the attorneys’ behavior, the attorneys met and agreed to a location for the deposition. Defense counsel was afraid that failure to engage in the court ordered game might result in their being held in contempt, so they filed a motion asking the judge to vacate the ruling to play rock, paper and scissors.
The judge agreed to vacate the ruling based upon the fact that the attorneys seemed to have regained a sense of civility - at least for the present time.