Who Really Runs the Courtrooms?

It’s easy to think that judges run courtrooms. After all, when they enter the public stands up, sits when they say it’s okay to do so, and lets them make decisions about vital aspects of our lives. Unspoken communication is important also. People ask the judge what he wants, they stop speaking if the judge starts talking, and they defer in almost everything to the judge’s whims and wants.

TV fills in any doubts we have about who runs the show–judges. But do they?

I’ve spent my entire adult life in courtrooms with every kind of judge you can imagine. It is correct that they are in “control” of the courtroom–and they should be. American courts were set up to resolve conflicts between citizens without resorting to violence. Still, an American courtroom is a lively place with parties on either side of an issue strongly attached to their positions. People argue and even yell at each other. At least they don’t pull out guns.

So society needs a strong leader to ride herd on the feuding parties in courtrooms today. A judge fills that role and the best ones I’ve worked with have solid control of what goes on before them. They are prepared for each case and exert control over the parties–to at least get them to channel their arguments into constructive patterns.

Beyond those larger issues, who really runs the courtroom?

In my opinion, it’s the clerks and bailiffs who have great power, although no one–not even TV–gives them the credit they’re due.

Judges make final decisions, but most of what happens in a courtroom is the routine processing of hundreds of cases–all the public’s problems and controversies. Let’s look at a simple example. I have a client, a landlord, who is trying to get back rent from a tenant for failure to pay for six months. Along with me, are twenty other parties, each represented by a lawyer, who also have disputes they want the judge to rule on. My client has limited amounts of money and I bill her by the hour as we stand and wait for our turn amongst the other twenty litigants.

The gatekeeper who decides which cases get heard first and which ones will wait around all morning, is the judge’s clerk. Usually this person isn’t a law student or lawyer. They’re long-term government employees who have the power to set the judge’s schedule. That’s the key.

Because when I show up with my client, in competition with all the other cases, I want to get mine heard by the judge as soon as possible. The clerk has the power to determine which cases go first. That’s the real “power behind the throne.” The clerk can make me stand in the hallway for three hours or he can usher me and my client in immediately. The judge doesn’t care about the order because eventually, he has to decided all the cases.

But I care–a lot. My client is paying by the hour and besides that, I have other clients who need my time and I have other things to do.

Or when I have a client in custody, the deputies who transport the defendants to the courtrooms often make the decision of which defendant is brought in from the holding area first–hopefully, it’s my client. Otherwise, I could wait for hours.

If you doubt me, here’s a simple test: The next time you’re in a courtroom, watch the lawyers to see who they spend the most time talking to–the judge or the clerks and deputies…

This entry was posted in courts, defendants, Uncategorized and tagged , by Colin Nelson. Bookmark the permalink.

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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