When I used to mentor and teach younger criminal defense attorneys, I would pose the following question, “Who is the most important person in the court room?” It was not uncommon to get these answers in some variation: the judge, the accused, the prosecutor, or the defense attorney. While these seem like obvious choices, let me explain why these are all incorrect answers.
Make no mistake, I am not trying to diminish the prestige or academic achievements of the attorneys (who went to school for years, studied hard, and passed the bar exam to become attorneys), nor am I trying to discount the work that attorneys do in the court room, but this will all make sense when I am finished explaining. As for the accused (also known as the defendant), admittedly the criminal justice system cannot proceed forward without a defendant and may be the reason everyone is actually in the court room, but in many instances the defendant has little to do with the court room operation.
If you said the judge, then you might be surprised to learn that is not correct either. While the judge is important in any criminal court room, the answer is the court personnel, specifically, the court clerk, court reporter, and bailiff. The court clerk and court reporter are tied for the most important person in the courtroom. The court room bailiffs are not too far behind in terms of importance. The yeoman’s share of the labor done in any criminal courtroom is completed by these individuals.
I am sure that you are confused and asking yourself – – why are the court clerk and the court reporter so important? Let me explain. Without the court clerk and court reporter, nothing gets done in a criminal court room. Nothing.
In court rooms around America, court clerks ensure that the court room functions properly. Court often will not start without a clerk (and court reporter). The clerks are hard-working individuals that do everything to make sure that the files (whether paper or electronic) are up-to-date and that the judge’s docket runs smoothly. They do this every day. Judges will tell you if you ask that they probably could not run their docket without a competent court room clerk.
Keep in mind, the courtroom clerks bust their fannys to make things go in the courtroom. They also ensure that the record is complete. They are responsible for making sure that the all the court documents are correct – – including making the notes in the system about what the judge ordered and said in court. They confirm the judgment and sentences handed down from the judges are correct. During hearings, they collect and safeguard any physical evidence admitted. Essentially, anything that happens in a criminal courtroom happens because a courtroom clerk made it happen (even arrests on warrants or capiases). And now you know.
The same holds true for the court reporter. Whether the court reporter is a true stenographer or a digital report, it does not matter. It is their job to make sure that everything that is said during the docket, hearing, or trial is captured and accurately taken down. This is no easy task.
Think about it this way – it is their job to clearly record everything that is said no matter how fast or loud someone is speaking. And some people are next to impossible to understand because they speak too fast or mumble or are a “low talker”…etc. Convictions have been overturned on appeal because the transcript from the courtroom is unintelligible because the court reporter could not take down what is said for whatever reason. And there is no DeLorean to go back in time[i] and figure out what was said later on. Literally, it is that important.
In a criminal courtroom, the bailiffs are the next most important personnel. The bailiffs ensure that the accused and defendants (and sometimes the victims or other people) do not become aggressive or belligerent in the courtroom. People do crazy things and sometimes act out violently. The bailiffs make sure that everyone, including the defense attorneys, stay safe.
Why is all this important? Well, let me explain. Over my twenty-years of practice, I have seen younger and older attorneys (whether prosecutors or defense attorneys) make the serious mistake of mistreating and look down at the court personnel. For a myriad of reasons, this is wrong. I caution you it will only cost you in the end. It goes without saying that these are hard-working human being just trying to do their jobs to earn a living so that can support their families. They do not need your gruff or nonsense for whatever reason. So keep it to yourself. Your bad day could get a whole lot most hostile if you are disrespectful to these dividuals (not to mention potentially upset the judge who won’t take kindly to mistreating the staff).
To begin, it is just wrong to mistreat these individuals. Every day, the court personnel bust their butts to make the courtroom function. Additionally and equally important, when there is a break in the action or the docket is over, these personnel have the ear of the judge. If you are disrespectful, rude, or condescending to these personnel, then you can take it the bank that the judge will be hearing about it. This is not to say that the court personnel are tattling on the attorneys, but judge will ask or the personnel will tell. In any event, why put yourself in that position? The question scarcely escapes its own statement. And this is not to say that the judge won’t follow the law, but they are human beings too and usually will not tolerate mistreating the courtroom personnel.
I have seen with my own eyes how much control the court personnel have in terms of the day-to-day operation. In the days before everything was digital and stored on-line, if an attorney was rude and disrespectful to the court clerk, then it was not uncommon for the court file that attorney needed to go mysteriously missing. I am not accusing the court clerk of derogation of duty, but while the file was being located, the disrespectful attorney would simply have to sit (shamefully) and wait for the court file to be found and brought to the courtroom. This could take a few minutes, hours, or even a day or two.[ii] Sometimes, the attorney would be asked to come back later.
“I can’t hear you. Please speak up.” “Slow down.” “Judge, I can’t hear him.” It is not uncommon for an experienced court reporter to ask for the attorney or witness to “speak up” or “slow-down” or whatever command is necessary to ensure that the reporter was able to properly capture what was being said. That is their job and they usually do it exceptionally well.
On the other hand, it is entirely another thing when the attorney (who has been rude to the court reporter) “earns” the court reporter’s enthusiastic precision for their job. It usually does not ends well for the attorney. While legitimate interruptions are necessary, a court reporter does not always need a wide berth to hear and take down what is being said. They have been doing their job for years and are usually good at understanding what is being said in the courtroom. In many cases, the court reporter simply knows because they are a professional. But, if you bust their chops and are rude to them, then watch out because they will really do their job by calling out the attorney for not being able to hear them or speaking too fast.[iii] In most instances, they will be doing their job. Many witness examinations can be hobbled in a second by an interrupting court reporter doing their job.
My advice is simple – treat all the court report personnel with the utmost respect and you will get the same treatment from them. While the judge might not rule in your favor, the court room personnel will not think you are a jerk. This kind of respect works both ways and you will thank me down the road. You are forewarded. Plus, over the years some of my best friends I have ever made are the court personnel.
Anthony Candela is the Trial Dog and a Board-Certified attorney. He opened the Candela Law Firm, P.A. in 2014 and handles criminal trials and appeals (as well as estate planning, wills, and trusts). He received his J.D. from Duquesne University School of Law in 2000 and his B.A. in Political Science from King’s College in 1996. As an expert in criminal law and procedure, he has tried over a hundred cases to verdict. Since 2008, he has been certified and recertified by the Florida Bar in Criminal Trial three times. He has also argued several dozen appeals. In the federal system, he is admitted to the Middle District of Florida and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal. #candelalawfirm #thetrialdog
If can assist you with any criminal questions, then please do not hesitate to contact http://www.candelalawfirm.com or Anthony Candela at (813) 417-3645 to discuss your case.
The purpose of this blog is purely education/information and should not be viewed as creating any attorney-client privilege between the reader and author.
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[i] Back to the Future. (1985)
[ii] I am not implying that the court clerks are interfering in the legal process. In the olden-days, court files did get lost, mislaid, or misplaced from time to time. It is human nature. I am just saying – – sometimes … it just happened to the rudest attorneys in the court room and no one could explain why. Who is to say what really happened, but it just seems odd that the most disrespectful attorneys ended up with missing files. On the other hand, all the nice, polite, and respectful attorneys never seem to have their court files misplaced.
[iii] These are legitimate concerns. I am by no means saying that court reporters are purposefully interfering with the attorney or the proceeding, but there are things that the court report might let slide will defintely be called out in terms of super-thoroughness instead of allowing the flow of questioning. Again, these type of hyper-thoroughism never seemed to happen to the polite attorneys, only the rude ones. Go figure?