When I sit down with a criminal client or someone who has received a traffic ticket that will require a court appearance I always discuss the Five Rules of How to Act in Court.
Here they are:
- DRESS LIKE YOU ARE GOING TO A FUNERAL: For men, this means wearing a suit. If you can’t wear a suit or afford one, then wear a nice pair of khakis, a white button up dress shirt and a tie. Women should wear a pantsuit or a conservative dress. Why? Because you want to show the court and the judge that you are taking your case seriously and with respect. You also want to separate yourself from the majority of people who show up to court dressed like they’re going to the gym, were running late after waking up from a daylong nap or who just really don’t care how their image portrays itself to someone like a judge. Judges appreciate the effort and it could be make a very helpful impression to the judge when you and I appear in front of him to discuss your case.
- PUT AWAY THE CELLPHONE: When I was a prosecutor in New Jersey, the judge would tell everyone in the court room before starting his docket that if he saw or heard a cellphone in his court while in session, he would confiscate it and embarrass the person. On more than a few occasions, I saw the judge stop in mid-sentence, have the bailiff confiscate a phone and bring its owner in front of him to ask him questions like “Did you not here my rules about cell phones?” The point here is simple: Judges and courts in general want people to show deference to simple rules of courtesy, especially in a court room setting. I’m not saying you can’t bring your cellphone (although O’Fallon Municipal Court forbids them from being brought into court), I’m just saying turn it off. When you get out of court you can check your texts and emails. Or the weather forecast.
- REPLY TO EVERYONE AS A MA’AM OR SIR / REFER TO THE JUDGE AS YOUR HONOR: Most people know that judges are formally referred to as “Your Honor” and less formally as “Judge”. Clients should use “Your Honor” when asked a question. Everyone else in the courtroom, from the bailiff to the payment clerk outside the courtroom should be referred to as “sir” or “ma’am”. Old school? Sure. But it’s a sign of respect and I insist that my clients use these terms.
- DON’T BE LATE TO COURT: This is common sense but here’s the real reason you want to be on time. If you’ve hired me you have what is called an attorney represented case. That means our cases are usually resolved with the prosecutor and/or in front of the judge first and usually in the order of appearance. Most courts have an attorney sign up sheet. Because of this privilege, we can often get your case handled immediately once the docket begins. Take advantage. You don’t have to be early, just be on time for the start of the docket. If the clerk asks you to sign in, do so.
- PAY YOUR FINES AS YOU PROMISED: Often I will be making representations to the court that since you can’t make full payment of a fine that you can probably pay it by a certain date. Judges and court clerks understand that but the first thing to do is give a reasonable date by which you can pay everything in full. If you have a $500.00 fine and can only pay $250.00 per month, it will take you two months. Don’t tell them one month and then have to return to court (on your own) to explain to the judge you don’t have all the money. Judges understand you get paid a certain amount and need time. They’ll work with you if you’re upfront about what you need. This problem actually occurs I believe because clients think they need to pay everything right away or else. Not the case. Each court has certain payment minimums per month or full payment by a certain date, but if you tell them how much time they need, they’ll usually work with you.