The ABA Journal reported on Friday that a Pennsylvania judge held a lawyer in contempt and increased the bond for his client when they were late for a jury trial. “We were all here at 9 a.m. for a jury trial and the defense table was empty,” said the judge, who had dismissed the prospects not long before the two arrived. “We wasted a jury panel.” The lawyer later claimed that personal problems kept him up late and the hotel failed to give him a wake-up call.
Readers can receive this in many ways. Some will say, good for the judge, he did the right thing. Others will think it’s over the top and the judge was out of line. After all, everyone has been late at one time or another. Is contempt and a $1,000 fine (which the judge ordered later) really appropriate?
I don’t know. I suspect if I was the judge the outcome would have depended on whether I was particularly irritable that morning. Not very even-handed, I know. But whether a lawyer is held in contempt for being late, or simply slapped on the wrist, the lesson we should learn from this particular Pennsylvania judge is the same: don’t be late for a jury trial. Ever. Period.
I’ll confess I’m sometimes challenged when it comes to getting somewhere on time. I make this confession so you won’t mistake me for someone who is self-righteous about his meticulous habits. But there are two events for which I take great pains to be on time. One is to catch an airplane and the other is for trial.
It’s been my experience that most judges presiding over a jury trial tend to put the interests and needs of those serving jury duty at or above his/her own. If you are before one of these judges, the quickest way to earn the judge’s scorn is to keep an impaneled jury waiting. (It doesn’t help that, when you keep the jury waiting, you’re also keeping His/Her Honor waiting as well.) In case it’s not obvious: the judge’s scorn often translates to the jury’s scorn, which you don’t want.
My mentor has always had a rule that the hotel where he stays and sets up his war room during trial must be the very closest possible hotel to the courthouse. It doesn’t matter if this is a den of filth, replete with vermin and cockroaches. He knows when he’s in trial he’s at war. There’s no time to be tied up in one of those unpredictable traffic jams. If you know you can walk to the courthouse in a reasonable amount of time, rain or shine, it’s one less thing to worry about. Worry = wasted mental energy, and mental energy is precious during trial.
If you don’t believe me, just ask Berks County, Pennsylvania Judge Stephen B. Lieberman. But leave my name out of it.