Impolite attorneys courting contempt Howard judge issues 29 rules of decorum to curb poor conduct

March 24, 1996|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,SUN STAFF

Stand when addressing the court. Don't attack fellow lawyers. And, by all means, don't call the judge "judge."

Violations of these courtroom rules might draw the contempt of "Judge Manners," otherwise known as Howard Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney.

Judge Sweeney on a mission to help restore some time-honored traditions to the bench and bar recently compiled "29 Rules for Exquisitely Correct Courtroom Conduct," a list of do's and don'ts for attorneys.

The four-page list covers the ridiculous and the sublime, from "Be on time" and "No eating and drinking" to "Don't attack your sister or brother counsel unless you have no other option. Even then, consider not doing it."

Traditionalists decry the decline of formality in the courtroom. Over the years, who has served on Howard Circuit Court since 1991, is known as a fair, mild-mannered jurist by lawyers who come before him. He said his list should help young lawyers who somehow never learned in law school the basic rules practiced in American courtrooms for generations.

"In the olden days, a young lawyer would not appear in court without a mentor figure, an older lawyer who would show him the ropes," Judge Sweeney says. "That is not the case anymore."

He says it has nothing to do with being stodgy and everything to do with the courtroom as a serious place of business one that's fallen victim to today's trends.

"As a society, we're being less formal," he says. "You go to church and you might see people in Homer Simpson T-shirts and halter tops, things you wouldn't have seen 20 years ago."

So the judge has adopted the moniker "Judge Manners" with, of course, polite apologies to the noted Miss Manners, columnist Judith Martin.

Some of his rules are procedural, such as showing documents to opposing lawyers before showing them to a witness, and submitting lengthy memos well before hearings.

Others are matters of courtesy: referring to adults by their surnames; not interrupting other lawyers, witnesses or the judge; being honest "more or less" with time estimates; and addressing judges as "your honor" rather than the less-respectful "judge."

Another way to irritate Judge Sweeney is to let a cellular phone or beeper sound in court his Rule 28.

"I have had young lawyers who, when I call them on something I think is crystal clear, tell me that truthfully and honestly that no one has ever told them these things before," the judge says.

His "your honor" rule actually was suggested by a longtime Howard County public defender, Richard Bernhardt, who believes judges should be treated with great reverence more than just for the sake of tradition.

"Certainly all of the judges want to have the rules of etiquette abided by, and I think it's important because you have to demonstrate that you respect the court," he says. "The court draws its authority from the respect that it has."

Mr. Bernhardt who describes himself as an "old-fashioned" lawyer when it comes to court customs says he encounters ill-mannered displays in courtrooms far too often.

"If I'm in court five straight days, on three of them I'll hear at least one attorney act in a way or speak in a way that shows something less than the proper respect," he says.

In Howard Circuit Court last week, at least one defense attorney apparently had not read the "Exquisitely Correct" rules before he appeared in court to represent a man accused of violating probation. The lawyer repeatedly called Circuit Judge Donna Hill Staton "judge" instead of "your honor."

On the other side of the aisle, prosecutor Michael Rexroad used the preferred term. So did probation agent Gail Allen, who believes the same rules of etiquette apply to lay people in the courtroom.

"When I first got this job, I was told what you should and should not do in court," Ms. Allen says. "You shouldn't chew gum in court. You shouldn't have conversations with people sitting beside you. And you should address the judge as 'your honor.'

"Oh, yeah," she says after a pause, "you shouldn't read the newspaper in court."

Pub Date: 3/24/96

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