A recent story in www.startribune.com for 2/18/10 in Minneapolis noted that when a federal bankruptcy judge ruled against former car dealer Denny Hecker, saying he lied, Hecker swore at the judge. Later in the hallway, he kept swearing about the judge and the ruling.
How can a federal judge allow this to happen?
I’ve worked for years in courtrooms with a variety judges. It’s important to remember that the court process was designed to be calm and to preserve peaceful conduct. The hope is people involved in these proceedings will maintain behavior that allows fair, thoughtful decisions to be made instead of them beating on each other outside.
At the same time, courts are designed to handle disputes between people–sometimes by people with stongly-held opinions.
Disputes generally fall into civil–those involving money, and criminal–those involving freedom. Although money can get many of us upset, when a person’s freedom is take away, the fireworks can go off.
The most volcanic are those accused people who insist they are innocent. Or even if guilty, feel the sentence is too heavy and they don’t deserve to be treated so badly. All courtrooms have deputies or marshalls to try and prevent these incidents or to remove people who pose a threat. Still, courts deal with human beings who aren’t always predictable.
One incident I recall involved a judge who had been a varsity football player at the University of Minnesota and a marine. When a criminal defendant became enraged at the judge’s sentence, the man charged the bench. It was so unexpected, the deputies didn’t react quickly enough.
The man ran around the side of the elongated bench, up a few steps past the startled court reporter, and closed in on the judge. What he didn’t know was the judge’s history.
The judge jumped up, eager to take on the defendant. He actually had his arm cocked, looking forward to decking the defendant. Luckily for the accused, the deputies grabbed him before the judge could get at him.
Obviously, this is an unusual incident. But back to Hecker swearing at the judge. Why did the judge put up with that?
The best way I’ve seen judges handle these outbursts is to ignore them at first. For most of us, the idea of swearing at a judge is unthinkable. But the reality is, once the outburst occurs, things usully quiet down. Every single time I’ve watched a judge react to the language and mix it up, has turned out badly. This only serves to fire up the defendant. By ignoring them, the judge difuses the anger and doesn’t give them a target.
I’m always reminded of Mohammad Ali’s famous “rope-a-dope” move in a major fight. Ali didn’t offer any resistance to his opponent as he punched away until he ran our of energy and quit.
The same attitude seems to work best in tense courtroom outbursts. The judge in Hecker’s case probably thought the same. The person with the true power doesn’t have to react badly.
Have you ever seen outrageous courtroom behavoir? What did the judge do?