Courtesy, communication, and consideration

A recent judicial discipline case emphasizes that the judicial courtesy required by the code of judicial conduct includes respect for people’s time.  A Special Court of Review Appointed by the Texas Supreme Court reprimanded a former judge for, in addition to other misconduct, a pattern of leaving the bench and failing to communicate with counsel and defendants about when or whether she would return.  In re Mullin, Opinion (Texas Special Court of Review October 21, 2015).  Following a de novo proceeding, the reprimand was an increased sanction from the admonition imposed by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

The judge often “left the bench with matters still to be heard” and “those remaining in the courtroom could not discern whether to go (as waiting would be futile) or stay (because the judge might return, though no one could say when).  If the lawyers stayed, they would have to forgo attending to other matters and clients.  If they left to attend to other courthouse business, they would risk not being in the courtroom if the respondent returned to the bench, in which case they would have to reschedule the matters in the respondent’s court and return to face the same problem another day.”

The judge testified there were times she had to get off the bench to take a break, to speak with another judge or lawyer in chambers, or to greet jurors, and she once had to leave during a jury trial when her mother had to be rushed to the hospital.  The Court noted “judges are permitted to leave the bench for all of these reasons and many more, as taking breaks is a matter within the judge’s discretion.”

However, it explained:

The first principle of courtesy is consideration of others.  Though a judge need not disclose why she is leaving the bench or what she will be doing while she is gone, common courtesy requires a judge to let those waiting to be heard know whether and when she anticipates returning.  By persistently leaving the bench for extended periods of time without communicating this basic information to those in attendance, the respondent showed a lack of consideration for court-goers and thus failed to act with the courtesy expected of a judicial officer. . . .

With respect to other delays and inefficiencies in the judge’s court, the Court noted that, “even if the judge’s choices produce delays and inefficiencies, the decision to choose one process or procedure over another generally does not constitute a dereliction of judicial duty that subjects the judge to discipline.”  However, it also criticized the lack of information generally available in the judge’s court.

Our legal system is best served when the trial judge manages expectations by communicating with those who come before the court about the timing and scheduling of events that are under the judge’s exclusive control, so that court-goers may plan accordingly.  Taking this simple measure shows consideration for others and reflects the type of professional courtesy expected of a Texas judge.

The respondent testified that when she took office she inherited a busy court, took a hands-on approach, worked hard, and through her efforts was able to significantly reduce the number of pending cases.  Assuming that the respondent’s characterization of her record is accurate, it does not excuse the lack of consideration for court-goers, who, as a matter of course, were subjected to lengthy wait times, delays in resolution of pending matters, and multiple court appearances because of the respondent’s failures.  Lawyers need to be able to explain the legal process and proceedings to their clients and to advise them of the likely costs and timetables of the proceeding.  Time estimates aid planning by helping court-goers to form realistic expectations about what is involved in a particular court appearance and about how long it should take so that they can make arrangements with employers, childcare providers, schools, and the like, and ensure transportation to and from the courthouse.

Similarly, a previous post noted several recent discipline cases illustrating that lengthy court session also demonstrate a lack of the judicial temperament.

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