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Should a judge who assaults a lawyer be let back on the bench?

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Why do some judges act more civil to some lawyers and litigants than to others, and act downright hostile to others? The short answer is that it is a combination about what is going on with the judge, the lawyer, the litigant, and outside circumstances. In and out of court, it is important that I be compassionate to all, but never to kowtow. Judges do not worry about asserting control over lawyers who kowtow, but might feel contempt over the kowtowing. When judges sense a challenge to their authority, some or many may overreact by using hammering and even machine-gunning words — often dismissive — and tones of voice to lawyers and litigants, to communicate to the rest of the people in the courtroom to watch out.

If only judges would draw inspiration from a trial judge like Henry Kennedy and my late high school English teacher Charles Abraham, who commanded so much respect through respecting others and liking and doing their best in their positions, that raising their voice or using barbed words was unnecessary.

A judge’s approach to a lawyer may also involve prejudice (don’t expect to have a sexism-free and racism-free judiciary when the rest of society is so heavily sexist and racist), prior experience with the lawyer, reputation of the lawyer (whether well earned or not), and even irritation over the lawyer’s First Amendment-protected activities outside the courtroom (although it would be a shame for judges to take offense at my blog postings encouraging good judging but calling out bad judging, and addressing persuading even the most challenging judges).

Praised be the inventors of videotape for helping me once again show that I am not being farfetched in saying that too many judges are too abusive in the courtroom. On June 2, 2014, Brevard County, Florida, judge John Murphy went ballistic with his words, and apparently fists as well, on public defender lawyer Andrew Weinstock, when Weinstock refused to waive his client’s speedy trial rights. See the article.

Granted, defense lawyer Weinstock could have diffused — but did not diffuse — the situation with calmer words and tone of voice without sacrificing the strength of his arguments. Weinstock also quickly accepted the judge’s invitation to step outside to settle scores, when Weinstock was wisest to stay in the courtroom with the video camera as his recording friend. It appears that what led to the videotaped blowup may have been preceded with friction between Weinstock and/or his colleagues and the judge the same day or on an earlier occasion.

The audio from the videotape indicates that the judge slugged Weinstock off camera. The news reports I have read say security broke up the incident, without Weinstock throwing any blows. Weinstock’s boss says Judge Murphy has a good reputation, but how can his reputation ever recover here?

Judges face plenty of challenges with difficult litigants. However, they must always remain civil. They can let courtroom security personnel take care of any physical actions on difficult litigants. Weinstock did nothing to merit anyone’s laying hands on him.

If Judge Murphy is not removed from the bench, the bench’s dignity and authority will be besmirched.

Judge Murphy’s assault on Weinstock may be an extreme example of a judge misbehaving in court, but is far from the only example of a judge being uncivil to lawyers and litigants.