Of Counsel

Legal Notes on Georgia and The South

Levity in the Courtroom

Posted by Maggie on November 9, 2007

I was in court earlier this week.  It’s something I used to do nearly every day as a PD and now do on occasion (weekly or so) as a private attorney with a diverse caseload.  As I sat I watched the Judge take a few pleas and had a lot of different thoughts.

 He took a long time with the pleas, explaining things carefully, much better than the judges I used to appear before.  I like it when judges do this.  The court shouldn’t be an assembly line, especially when liberty is at stake.  But as a PD I was forced to see it as an assembly line.  I had to have 50-70 cases straight in my head for just a single day’s calendar and when one got held up, I would get antsy about the rest of my clients.  But then last week I felt like a judge took an excessive amount of time–2 hours for 6 or so pleas–it seemed like a little much.  It’s a hard balance to strike, I guess.

The thing that really struck me, though, was trying to see this all through a defendant’s eyes.  Especially one that’s in for their first crime and has never been through the script before.  I saw a man who had done pretty decently for himself who’d lost his job from a theft case and will probably lose any one he could get in the future now that he’s got a record.  I thought how foreign this must be for this man, whereas for me, sitting through pleas made me feel at home as a lawyer.  And then something happened that happens quite often with some judges.  The Judge started telling stories, giving advice, going off on tangents.  It started with semi-relevant information, but devolved into discussions of food and restaurants and such.  I wondered if it made the man feel strange to have people recommending places for lunch and smiling at the Judge’s jokes while he was destroying his life.

Any of you ever feel that way or is it just me?  How sensitive should a lawyer or a judge be in that situation?  Especially if it’s your client giving a plea and the judge makes a joke you’re expected to laugh at. 

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2 Responses to “Levity in the Courtroom”

  1. Charles Clapp said

    As a PD, part of your job–a very large part–is helping your clients to take pleas. There are times when it becomes very difficult to appear independent of the plea machinery. The reality is that there are times where there is no independence.

    The worst example of this is plea and arraignment at the jail. Defendants are forced with this question: 1) get out of jail today, and get another felony on their record–one they may be able to beat, because of poor police work or actual innocence, or 2) stay in jail a MINIMUM of 3 more weeks to fight the case.

    90% of the time, the defendant will choose option number 1. They just want to get out of jail. Who can blame them? Of course, this results in long records and questionable guilty pleas.

    Personally, I abhor pleas. But the entire system revolves around them these days.

  2. Malum said

    When I first started at the PD’s office I felt as though I was in an altered reality. I remember walking into the Courtroom for the first time and how cordial everyone was to each other. I had come to the PD’s office alter leaving a civil practice, where everyone remained much more distant.

    Here the DA’s office was sitting on our table the judge was discussing that weekends past event, the while while the courtroom was full of people about to plea or ask for the court to appoint attorneys.

    I remember sitting there with my first court appointed client and him thanking me for the assignment. I remember asking him why and he replied, “Because of all the people in this room your the only one who doesn’t seem to be friends with the DA.”

    That has always stuck with me and while I have developed professional relationships with most of the ADA’s, I never forget that what my first client told me.

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