First Appearance in Court

One area which causes many people a lot of unneeded concern is their first appearance in court, so I thought I'd take just a minute to discuss it.

Since there is no way of knowing what your first appearance will be for I have to write this article based on generalities but they apply pretty much in all circumstances.

Courts can be imposing places. They're designed that way on purpose. There is usually a rail, called "the bar", that separate the audience from the participants, an elevated place for the judge to sit (called the bench) and look down upon everyone, often both figuratively and literally, a lot of frantic activity and usually a bailiff with a sidearm looking suspiciously at everyone who enters.

The whole system is designed to make anyone who is not a lawyer or a judge feel intimidated and to firmly establish the weight and solemnity of the law on them.

It's BS. The judge could hold the trial outside in the lobby, down by the street, etc. In most cases anyone has the right to be there and to hear the proceedings, as much right as the lawyers and the judge. The US has an open courtroom system with no secret trials. Occasionally a courtroom can be closed if some secret piece of information is being revealed in trial, like the recipe for Coca Cola, and they are often closed when dealing with juvenile matters. However, in most cases the courtroom is absolutely open to anyone who wants to wander in and spend the day.

Why am I telling you this?

The most important thing to know about your first day in court is to be comfortable and it is very, very hard to be comfortable in a new surrounding.  One of my pet peeves is when I watch a football game and, after scoring a touchdown, the player gets up and dances or puts on some kind of show. I once heard an old time player talking about a ridiculous display and he said words to the effect of "when you make a touchdown you should act like you've been there before.

It's the same with the courtroom. One of the tidbits we pass on in our Guerrilla Guides to the Law is to do everything possible to make the other side think you are comfortable and know what is going on. That means that you don't want to be wandering around on your first court appearance trying to figure out where to sit and what happens.

Several weeks ahead of your court appearance, it at all possible, go to the court you will be in and sit down for a while watching and taking notes on how things work. If there are other people there who are pro se, watch what they do and how the judge and their opponent react to them. You can quickly pick up on what is expected and what is a mistake.

Watch the lawyers so that you can emulate their mannerisms when you come back to court for your turn. Note how they dress, how and where they sit, how they know when it is their turn to talk and when their case is called, etc.

There is one way you shouldn't try to copy the lawyer. A common rookie mistake that marks you as "fresh meat" if you have a lawyer on the other side is trying to use legal-ese. There is nothing that can be said in "lawyer talk" that can't be said in plain English. If you try to use the fancy words and either use them incorrectly or mispronounce them it degrades you in front of the judge and the lawyer and soon you will find the other side peppering you with terms for which you do not know the meaning. Just use English, it's easier and safer.

Regard this visit to the court as a kind of rehearsal. After you have watched for a while, imagine you are up there and what you would do at each change.

When you finish you court visit, either stay there or go home and think through what will happen on your day in court. Walk through it in your mind from the time you enter until the time you leave. What will the judge say? How will you respond? Who is that person over there at the desk and when, if ever, do you have to interact with them? If you need to hand something to the judge how do you do it? Do you have it directly to them or do you give it to the bailiff or a clerk to give to them? Do you have to ask permission to "approach the bench"? Do you stand or sit when talking?

One thing that many people are confused about is who they talk to during a hearing. Usually after the hearing begins you don't actually speak to anyone other than the judge or, if there are witnesses, a witness on the stand. This is to maintain decorum and to prevent the attorneys from getting involved with disputes with each other.

Finally, remember that the judge wants things to move as quickly as possible. They don't get paid by the case, they are on a salary and when they have finished their work they get to go back to their office and play solitaire on the computer or go to the golf course. DON'T WASTE THE JUDGE'S TIME! BE PREPARED! This is easy enough if you are familiar with your case, familiar with the other side's case (you did do discovery didn't you?) and have watched a real court and understand the way things happen in real life.

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