Judge Steve Halsey
During the past 18 months Minnesota judges have, until recently, presided over few in-person hearings in the courtroom, other than jury trials. Some of the seriousness of the proceedings is lost when hearings are conducted remotely over Zoom. Parties appear while smoking, eating, wearing a hat, seated on their deck with a cool drink; shout profanity at the judge, interrupt the hearing, or are unable to operate their digital device.
Some of the rituals in the courtroom have a long tradition, some of them flowing from British judicial traditions. While American judges and lawyers do not wear white horsehair wigs, other traditions such as the black robe, the “bar and well,” and the “bench” are British in origin. Indeed white wigs are no longer worn in British civil hearings.
If you have watched British courtroom dramas such as “Witness for the Prosecution” or “Rumpole of the Bailey” you would have observed the in-court clerk or bailiff announce something like, “Silence! Be upstanding in Court, all persons who have anything to do before my lords, the queen’s justices . . . in general delivery for the jurisdiction of the central criminal court draw near and give your attendance. God save the queen.” The judge in a flowing robe, perhaps red, with powdered wig ascends the bench, sits down, and then the lawyers and gallery sit down. The proceedings are very formal and the attorneys address the judge as “M’Lord.” The judge is a representative of the British crown and everyone rises in honor and respect of the crown, represented by the Royal Court of Arms, which is in every British courtroom.
Under Minnesota rules of court, judges are to be announced as they enter the courtroom and all assembled are to rise, stand quietly, and maintain order until the judge directs everyone to be seated. Judges are required by rule to wear robes. A former judge in Hennepin County wore a nice suit instead of a robe. Why? I have no idea. Robes in British tradition were not always black, the color of the robe worn by judges in Minnesota. The colors, styles, accessories, and materials of robes throughout British history have varied through the years, the status of the judge, the type of court, and the seasons. The black robe became more common as British history progressed. Robes worn by American judges do not have the variety seen throughout British history. But no matter the color, style, or material used, a judge’s robe has been a standard part of the courtroom for some time.
The gavel is a symbol of order. If you have watched a courtroom drama in a movie or TV show, you have probably seen a judge hammering his gavel furiously, trying to bring order to an out-of-control courtroom. While the gavel is not used as much as movies or TV would have you believe, the gavel still stands as a symbol of the order and respect expected from those who enter the courtroom.
A legal resources website (www.hg.org) summarizes the bar and well, the bench, and the witness stand nicely:
Bar and Well
Ever notice that little divider almost every courtroom has between where the attorneys and judge sit (the “well”) and the chairs in the back for an audience? That divider is called the “bar,” and is actually why the organizations that regulate attorneys are called “bar associations.” When one passes the licensing exam to become an attorney, it is known as “passing the bar” because they were no longer the lay people forced to sit behind the bar, but could now join the legal professionals sitting in the well by passing the bar dividing the two parts of the court room.
The bench is not a chair, but the large desk behind which a judge sits at the front of a courtroom. It is also a metaphor for the judge’s role in a court proceeding. So, if you hear someone refer to a “bench trial,” that is a trial with only a judge and no jury, or a “bench warrant” is a warrant issued by a judge on his or her own initiative (usually because of someone missing court or being in contempt of an order by the judge). When one asks to “approach the bench,” they are asking both for permission to speak privately with the judge outside the hearing of the jury and to actually step closer to the judge’s desk. Traditionally, it was considered disrespectful for anyone to place a hand or document on the bench without the judge’s express permission, so if you are asked to approach, avoid the natural inclination to lean against the judge’s desk or to flop evidence or documents onto it.
Traditionally, witnesses were required to stand while testifying, and were given a small area in the courtroom, normally surrounded by a railing against which they could lean and raised above the ground to aid in voice projection, from which to do so. In modern courtrooms, witnesses are able to sit, but the small area where they are asked to sit while testifying it still called a “witness stand.” Some courtrooms still have a partition around this area, but others may simply have a conspicuously placed chair. Once called to testify, one may not generally leave “the stand” until instructed or allowed to do so by the judge. Leaving the witness stand is called “stepping down,” even though it may no longer be elevated.
One tradition we have in Wright County that I would like to keep is randomly drawing the names of jurors to be seated from a small barrel turned with a handle. Hopefully we will not follow the lead of most courts in using a computer to randomly choose jurors.
Judge Steve Halsey, Wright County District Court, chambered in Buffalo. Judge Halsey is co-host with Judge Elizabeth Strand of “The District Court Show” on local cable TV public access channels throughout the Tenth Judicial District. Excerpts can be viewed at www.QCTV.org/districtcourtshow.