Violence in the Courtroom

With the tragic shooting in Tucson last week, I thought I’d comment on the violence in the courtrooms…or lack of it and why that should give us all hope.

I’m always amazed at the lack of violence toward public officials in courtrooms today. In most states, judges are still elected offices. When violence happens, it makes the news precisely because it’s so unusual.

Think about it: people appear in courtrooms all over the country. For many, it means a loss of their physical freedom, a loss of their children who have been taken by the government, a loss of money, a loss of the use of their car, a loss of employment because they have to spend some time in jail, and perhaps, a loss of corporate or government benefits. You’d think these people would be really mad!!

They are, of course, but for some reason they don’t go off in the courtrooms.

Part of the reason is because of the formality of the proceedings. Unlike people in Congress who try to act like they’re “one of the people,” judges still wear robes, sit on high benches, and are treated with respect when everyone rises as they enter the courtroom. It sounds old and odd, but these rituals give a courtroom a certain amount of decorum.

I have represented some of the most violent killers, but when they appear in court, they act like children. Quiet, respectful, and meek, they listen to the judge and obey the orders.

Occasionally, there are problems. I remember a judge who presided over Mental Health Court. As he was leaving the courthouse, an angry person, whom the judge had just worked with in court, attacked him as he rode the escalator down to the ground floor. Sometimes, defendants try to escape from courtrooms. Another time, a criminal defendant appeared before a judge who was an ex-marine and college football player. When the defendant got angry with the judge’s ruling he charged the bench to attack the judge. The judge jumped up and met him halfway, anxious to get into with the criminal. I often wonder who would have won the fight if the deputies had not intervened!

When I was a younger lawyer, I often made fun of the “pomp and circumstance” of the courtrooms. I felt the proceedings inflated the office of a judge beyond what they really did in our society. Now, I realize that raising a judge above the argumentative fray that most of us live in, is critical. Even the most hardened criminal calms down when facing a judge.

Theres an interesting point: in our society which goes ever more casual in all settings, in the courtrooms formality in process and dress continues–it’s obvious there’s a value to this.

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About Colin Nelson

Colin T. Nelson worked for 40 years as a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis. He tried everything from speeding tickets to first degree murder. His writing about the courtroom and the legal system give the reader a "back door" view of what goes on, what's funny, and what's a good story. He has also traveled extensively and includes those locations in his mysteries. Some are set in Southeast Asia, Ecuador,Peru, and South Africa. Readers get a suspenseful tale while learning about new places on the planet. Colin is married, has two adult children, and plays the saxophone in various bands.

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