Gavels going, going, gone Symbol: Many Maryland judges have stopped using what used to be a ubiquitous courtroom tool.

March 31, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

The state's second highest judge has never used one. A county judge is afraid of what he would do with one. And many judges say they simply don't need one.

The gavel, that quintessential symbol of law and order, has become exactly that: a symbol.

You might not know that from watching the throng of television legal dramas that show judges thumping their thick wooden gavels all the way to the commercial break. The real life picture is very different.

"A gavel doesn't really control things," says Joseph F. Murphy Jr., chief judge of Maryland's Court of Special Appeals, who has never used a gavel in his 14 years on the bench. "A judge has to control what's going on with voice and demeanor.

"You wouldn't want someone out there pounding the gavel every 10 seconds," Murphy adds. "If there were somebody doing that, you'd probably try to figure out how to take it from him."

Nobody really knows why or when gavels stopped being ubiquitous courtroom tools. Some judges note the declining sense of tradition, in and out of the courtroom. Others say it is just one more thing to clutter their benches.

Gavels are not completely passe, however. The Court of Special Appeals, Maryland's second highest court, opens each session with three ceremonial gavel whacks by a clerk. Some judges tap them to begin or end court. But these days they are more likely to be found on judges' bookshelves with plated inscriptions than banging out justice on the judge's bench.

"It could be dangerous for me to have a gavel out there," says Howard County Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, who keeps in his chambers a ceremonial gavel given to him when he became a judge. "I might take it out and throw it at someone."

The gavel remains a strong symbol for the judiciary. Maryland's newsletter for Circuit Court judges is called the Gavel. Awards given to the media by the American Bar Association are labeled the Gavel Awards. And new or departing judges will likely receive a ceremonial one from their families, friends or colleagues.

They just probably won't use it.

Yet the gavel image lingers, even in the minds of young people. A suburban New York judge, talking to a legal journal, recalled a visit by schoolchildren to his courtroom.

After the visit, all the children drew pictures of him in his robe, at his bench and holding a giant gavel in his right hand.

Problem was, he didn't have one.

A Texas judge did have what looked like a gavel on his bench. But when a visiting judge grabbed for it, he ended up spraying the courtroom with 12-year-old bourbon. The gavel was really a decanter, a legal journal reported.

Even the most notorious of disciplinarians say they don't wield the traditional big stick.

"I store mine with my wig," says Queen Anne's County Circuit Judge John W. Sause Jr.

Sause's outbursts from the bench became so legendary that the state's judicial review commission filed charges against him last year. The case was resolved Feb. 12 when Sause agreed to take corrective action, but officials said they couldn't be more specific.

The commission charged he threw a book at a defense attorney and had a man handcuffed for making an inappropriate noise. But does Sause use a gavel? Nope. "I don't think there is a need for them anymore," he says.

Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge James C. Cawood Jr. found out he usually can find something to grab people's attention if needed.

He doesn't have a gavel on the bench, so a few weeks ago when things started getting out of hand in his courtroom, he just banged the water pitcher on the bench. Another judge, he says, was notorious for throwing pencils at attorneys he felt were out of line.

Murphy says he has rapped his hand -- the one with the large college ring -- on the bench from time to time.

But merchants report the gavel business remains steady. Gavels, ranging in price from $20 to $120, are routinely sold to local organizations, such as PTAs, which use them in their meetings.

"It's a very popular gift," says March Girod, co-owner of Trophies and Plaques Unlimited in West Friendship.

Fraternities are also good customers, says Sam Turner, vice president for marketing for a Greensboro, N.C., company that sells gavels, among other things.

"Boy, they slam the heck out of those things," Turner says. "That's because they are unruly."

Pub Date: 3/31/98

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