When you spend as much time as I do at hearings, eventually you’ll get thrown out of court. At least you will if you argue with the judge the way you should. Lawyers say it’s important to be polite in court, but the truth is that persistence pays. If you feel you haven’t been heard before a judge makes a ruling, keep talking. No need to be rude. Don’t interrupt. But there’s something to be said for not taking ‘No’ for an answer.
Here’s the thing: Lawyers spend years learning how to argue their motions in court. Not only do they know the law. They know how to tie it to the facts of a case and chirp it out in the tidy sound bites judges are trained to detect. So even when you also know the law, there may be three or four bad ways to argue it if you lack legal training. That’s a distinct disadvantage when you’re up against a lawyer in court, especially on those rapid-fire motion calendars where routine procedural matters are heard. Add the implicit bias most judges have against pro se litigants — the assumption that we don’t know what we’re talking about — and you get shut down in court as soon as you start speaking.
But that’s not how it’s supposed to work. Fairness requires that you have whatever time you need to make your point. If you’re not given the time you need to get it right, you should take it. On more than one occasion, I’ve managed to stumble onto the right argument by not shutting up when told to. If you need to ramble until you find the right argument, ramble on and let the judge consider it. But you risk getting thrown out of court — with a curt “I Have Ruled!” from the judge, a bailiff’s tap on your chair or shoulder, or in handcuffs. Pay attention because things can escalate from one extreme to the other very quickly.
In my case, I got a tap on the chair just a few seconds (or so it seemed to me) after the judge made a decision I didn’t care for. The judge had stopped listening, but I continued, patiently explaining why the decision was wrong. I was so focused on my argument that I never saw the bailiff approach. The shadow of someone suddenly looming over me got my attention. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a very large man standing next to my chair, staring down at me. The judge had silently hit the “Eject” button, and the bailiff responded.
There’s a way a bailiff looks at you — “You’re going to jail” — that makes you move faster than you ever thought possible. My words trailed off as I stood up, mumbled “Thank you, your honor,” grabbed my papers and followed the bailiff outside. I’d been forced to take ‘No’ for an answer that day. Fortunately, it was a minor procedural step. I’d have to find a different way to proceed with my case, but it wasn’t dead. I learned a lesson, though: Civil court is not always civil, and you can go to jail. So be persistent in your arguments. But watch out for when the judge has truly had enough.
Have you ever been thrown out of court? Were handcuffs required? Share in the comments below.