Sunday, November 13, 2011

Humour in Court: Part 1


Byter Charles sent me an email of an order by Judge Martin Sheehan of the First Division Kenton Circuit Court in Kentucky  and asked me if it was an accurate account. 

It is legit, the order having been made on July 19, 2011 in the case of Kissel v. Schwartz & Maines & Ruby Co. which was scheduled earlier that week for trial.

The Order states in part:

The herein matter having been scheduled for a trial by jury commencing July 13, 2011, and numerous pre-trial motions having yet to be decided and remaining under submission;

And the parties having informed the Court that the herein matter has been settled amicably (the Court uses the word amicably loosely) and that there is no need for a Court ruling on the remaining motions and also that there is no need for a trial;

And such news of an amicable settlement having made this Court happier than a tick on a fat dog because it is otherwise busier than a one legged cat in a sand box and, quite frankly, would have rather jumped naked off of a twelve foot step ladder into a five gallon bucket of porcupines than have presided over a two week trial of the herein dispute, a trial which, no doubt, would have made the jury more confused than a hungry baby in a topless bar and made the parties and their attorneys madder than mosquitoes in a mannequin factory. . .

The case concerned a legal malpractice suit by one Barbara Kissel against the firm of Schwartz Manes Ruby & Slovin.  Having received news of the case having been settled, he responded with his comments above.  At the end of the Orders cancelling the trial he added one further order: 

The Clerk shall engage the services of a structural engineer to ascertain if the return of this file to the Clerk’s office will exceed the maximum structural load of the floors of said office.

Judge Sheehan later expressed surprise that his comments had been so widely reported.  “It’s a sad comment on the legal profession.  A judge puts a little humour in the judicial opinion, and it goes viral.”

Humour in court rooms tends to be of two broad types:  that which results accidentally or is unintended, and, secondly, that of judges and other judicial officers seeking to be funny.

The former can be quite amusing, the latter generally not.

According to former Chief Justice Murray Gleeson of the High Court of Australia, in a 1998 speech delivered at the National Judicial Orientation Programme:

“Some judges, out of personal good nature, or out of a desire to break the tension that can develop in a courtroom, occasionally feel it appropriate to treat a captive audience to a display of wit. Sometimes this is appreciated by the audience, but sometimes it is not. When it is not the consequences can be very unfortunate. Judges and legal practitioners may underestimate the seriousness which litigants attach to legal proceedings, and they can become insensitive to the misunderstandings which might arise if the judge appears to be making fun of someone involved in the case. Without wishing to appear to be a killjoy, I would caution against giving too much scope to your natural humour or high spirits when presiding in a courtroom. Most litigants and witnesses do not find court cases at all funny. In almost ten years of dealing with complaints against judicial officers to the Judicial Commission of New South Wales I have seen many cases where flippant behaviour has caused unintended but deep offence.

I agreee with His Honour's comments.  A court room is a place where  judicial humour is inconsistent with the solemnity, dignity and seriousness of the occasion, the subject matter and the importance of the outcome in both civil and criminal proceedings.

That hasn’t stopped humour taking place in courts and from some judges attempting the equivalent of judicial standup, especially in America.  The Australian and British legal systems are somwhwat different from the American system in that respect.  In some cases (no pun intended) the actions of the judges will leave you open mnouthed and scratching your head.

On the other hand, some of the best humour in court rooms comes from unintended funny moments.

Some examples follow.

No discussion on humour in court can ignore the multi-emailed list of cross examination goofs that everyone will have seen by now.  I include it for completeness:

From: Disorder in the Court Great Fractured Moments in Courtroom History by Charles M. Sevilla

Lawyer: Did you blow your horn or anything?
Witness: After the accident?
Lawyer: Before the accident.
Witness: Sure, I played for ten years. I even went to school for it.

Lawyer: Doctor, how many autopsies have you performed on dead people?
Witness: All my autopsies are performed on dead people.

Lawyer: Do you recall the time that you examined the body?
Witness: The autopsy started around 8:30 p.m.
Lawyer: And Mr. Johnson was dead at the time?
Witness: No, he was sitting on the table wondering why I was doing an autopsy.

Lawyer: Doctor, before you performed the autopsy, did you check for a pulse?
Witness: No.
Lawyer: Did you check for blood pressure?
Witness: No.
Lawyer: Did you check for breathing?
Witness: No.
Lawyer: So, then it is possible that the patient was alive when you began the autopsy?
Witness: No.
Lawyer: How can you be so sure, Doctor?
Witness: Because his brain was sitting on my desk in a jar.
Lawyer: But could the patient have still been alive nevertheless?
Witness: It is possible that he could have been alive and practicing law somewhere.

Lawyer: Do you know if your daughter has ever been involved in the voodoo or occult?
Witness: We both do.
Lawyer: Voodoo?
Witness: Yes we do.
Lawyer: You do?
Witness: Yes, voodoo.

Lawyer: How was your first marriage terminated?
Witness: By death.
Lawyer: And by whose death was it terminated?

Lawyer: So the date of conception (of the baby) was August 8th?
Witness: Yes.
Lawyer: And what were you doing at that time?

Lawyer: What is your date of birth?
Witness: July fifteenth.
Lawyer: What year?
Witness: Every year !

Lawyer: How many times have you committed suicide?
Witness: (looking confused) Is that a question?

Lawyer: Trooper, when you stopped the defendant, were your red and blue lights flashing?
Witness: Yes.
Lawyer: Did the defendant say anything when she got out of her car?
Witness: Yes, sir.
Lawyer: What did she say?
Witness: She said 'What disco am I at?'

Lawyer: Mr. Smith, you went on a rather elaborate honeymoon, didn't you?
Witness: I went to Europe, Sir.
Lawyer: And you took your new wife?

Lawyer: You say the stairs went down to the basement?
Witness: Yes.
Lawyer: And these stairs, did they go up also?

Lawyer: She had three children, right?
Witness: Yes.
Lawyer: How many were boys?
Witness: None.
Lawyer: Were there any girls?

Lawyer: Can you describe the individual you saw?
Witness: He was about medium height and had a beard.
Lawyer: Was this a male, or a female?

Lawyer: And where was the location of the accident?
Witness: Approximately milepost 499.
Lawyer: And where is milepost 499?
Witness: Probably between milepost 498 and 500.

Lawyer: Now doctor, isn't it true that when a person dies in his sleep, he doesn't know about it until the next morning?

Lawyer: Was it you or your younger brother who was killed in the war?
Witness: What do you think counselor.

Lawyer: Did he kill you?
Witness: Excuse me counselor can you repeat the question?

Lawyer: Is your appearance here this morning pursuant to a deposition notice which I sent to your attorney?
Witness: No, this is how I dress when I go to work.

Lawyer: What was the first thing your husband said to you when he woke that morning?
Witness: He said, "Where am I, Cathy?"
Lawyer: And why did that upset you?
Witness: My name is Susan.

Lawyer: What happened then?
Witness: He told me, he says, "I have to kill you because you can identify me"
Lawyer. And did he kill you?
Witness: Yes!

Lawyer: (Showing the witness a picture) That's You?
Witness: Yes.
Lawyer: And you where present, right, when the picture was taken ?

Lawyer:  All your responses must be oral, okay? What school did you go to?
Witness: Oral.      

Lawyer:  Are you sexually active?
Witness: No, I just lie there.

Lawyer:  What is your date of birth?
Witness: July 15th.
:  What year?
Witness: Every year.

Lawyer:  What gear were you in at the moment of the impact?
Witness: Gucci sweats and Reeboks.

Lawyer:  This myasthenia gravis, does it affect your memory at all?
Witness: Yes.
:  And in what ways does it affect your memory?
Witness: I forget.
:  You forget? Can you give us an example of something that you've forgotten?

Lawyer:  How old is your son, the one living with you?
Witness: Thirty-eight or thirty-five, I can't remember which.
:  How long has he lived with you?
Witness: Forty-five years.

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