“To Contempt?”or “Not to Contempt?” That is the Question

When I became a judge, I set the goal of never holding anyone in contempt. For thirty years, I have accomplished that goal.

 Finding someone is contempt should be the judge’s last resort. It is like a police officer shooting someone. That should be the last option. Contempt should only be used when there are no other alternatives.

Threatening Contempt

For some judges, threatening contempt is their first resort.

I have a colleague who is one of the most gracious gentlemen I know. But he has reputation for being a complete tyrant on the bench. I once asked him, “You are such a nice guy, how is it you have a reputation for being an ogre.” He replied without hesitation, “I have to demand respect.”

Using the Infamous Taser Belt

Decades ago, an L.A. County judge had difficulty controlling a criminal defendant in court. She had her bailiff make a taser belt with a remote-control switch. Whenever the defendant “mouthed off” she hit the button, sending 50,000 volts flooding through his body. That’s a lot of power. She stopped using the taser belt when she was threatened with a lawsuit and criminal prosecution for torture.

Alternatives to Contempt

First, ignore the offending statement. 

I do not acknowledge the offending statement, by pretending not to hear it. 

A woman colleague ignored the defendant when he said, “You’re stupid.”  However, when the defendant continued, “You’re stupid and ugly,” she “heard” the statement and found him in contempt.

Second, engage in a little verbal judo. 

I flip the statement back at the offender.  I verbally “retaliate” and “humiliate.”  For example, when a prisoner calls me “stupid,” I reply, “Well, I may be stupid, but you’re the one in the cage.”

Third, give warnings. 

However, I avoid making a specific threat. Instead, I give vague warnings. “If you keep acting up, you’re going to become very uncomfortable.”

Fourth, intimidate them.

Here is how I handled one aggressive out-of-control attorney during jury trial. After I have already warned him about his conduct, I said,  “The jury will disregard the conduct of counsel.” It the lawyer persists, I respond, “The jury will disregard the inappropriate conduct of counsel.” If the attorney continues, I admonish, “The jury will disregard the unethical conduct of counsel.” Bam!

Fifth, deflect the offending statement.

When they yell, “You’re an idiot,” I immediately respond, “I’m sorry, you have me confused with Judge Mack.” My good friend, Judge Mack and I have a mutual agreement to deflect contemptuous statements  by taking the other’s name in vein. 

Sixth, laugh it off

 I had a memorable case where none of my pre-planned strategies worked. A woman was in custody in my courtroom cage for her third time for trespass. I ordered her to stay away from a location, but she kept returning. The previous two times I released her from jail. But she kept violating my orders. This time I decided to set bail and keep her in custody.  I set her next court appearance in two weeks.

Judge:  I am setting bail and scheduling your case in two weeks.
Defendant: You mean you are not releasing me?  
Judge: That is correct.
Defendant (getting red in the face and raising her voice):  You mean I have to stay in jail for two weeks?
Judge:  Correct.
Defendant (face bright red, veins bulging, yelling):  You mean I have to pussy foot in the jail for two more weeks?
Judge: That’s right.
Defendant (screaming at the top of her lungs): Do you know what I think of you?
Judge: No, what?

I braced myself.  I anticipated that she was going to call me something very vulgar.  I was certain she was going to use the “f- bomb.”  I was positive that, since the courtroom was full, I would have to maintain the integrity of the court by holding her in contempt and ruining my perfect record.  I held my breath and braced myself, as she let it rip.

 Defendant: “Cram it, fatso!”

I burst out laughing, and I couldn’t stop. I raced off the bench and into my chambers. I closed my door.  It took me about ten minutes to stop laughing. I am still chuckling fifteen years later. I lost my opportunity to hold her in contempt, but I kept my perfect record.

(Other Articles: http://www.londonedition.net)

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