Oftentimes, in a fit of desperation, and maybe anger, a pro se litigant will feel a burning need to talk to the judge. Perhaps something unfair or illegal is happening, and the judge needs to know about it. This feeling is not unusual. In fact, there may very well be unethical, illegal, or unfair things happening. The way to handle that is through proper court communications.
As a party in a lawsuit, you have a right to your reactions to bad behavior. Unfortunately, if you react in the wrong way, you could make matters worse and hurt your case. That in itself seems unfair, especially when you feel that no one is listening to you or care what you’re saying about the bad behavior.
It’s not that court clerks and judges don’t want to help or commiserate with you. Oftentimes they do, but there’s a way that they must communicate with you that’s mandated by statute. So, don’t be offended if they don’t seem particularly helpful.
Understanding Court Communications
For legal and ethical reasons, judges, court clerks, and other court staff go out of their way to be impartial. That’s because they can’t appear to be providing legal advice or favoring one party over the other. So, they seem standoffish or unhelpful. That’s their outward showing of impartiality. By law, it has to be that way.
Judges, in particular, cannot permit ex parte communications. “Ex parte” means “on one side only; by or for one party.” One party cannot write, talk to, or otherwise communicate with the judge without the knowledge or presence of the opposing party. In fact, the judge is required to disclose ex parte communications to all parties. A case can get thrown out or a judge disqualified if he or she is deemed to be involved in ex parte communications.
So, if a judge doesn’t want a letter you wrote or his judicial assistant doesn’t want to discuss the case with you by phone, don’t take it personally.
The Court’s Relationship to Lawyers
Now you know about ex parte communications and impartiality. You understand what seems like meanness coming from court staff in your direction. What you don’t understand is why they seem so friendly and cozy with the lawyer from the other side.
Yes, the clerks seem more friendly and helpful to lawyers than they do to you. The judge has a rapport with them and looks them in the eye but scarcely gives you a glance. This is not your imagination. Despite the notion of impartiality, lawyers get a kind of pass that pro se litigants don’t.
There are several reasons for the lawyer “pass”. Judges and court staff see lawyers more often, and lawyers are considered to be officers of the court. They are known quantities. Lawyers know what to do with paperwork. They know documents to request and how court processes work. They simply make the courts run more efficiently.
Still, if you get to a point, say, in a hearing where a lawyer and judge seem way too chummy, and the judge is ignoring you, break it up. Get the judge’s attention (politely) and redirect him or her to the issue at hand and your concerns in particular.
Communicating With the Judge in Your Case
You need to communicate with the judge. How do you do that? There are two main ways, by motion or by hearing.
A motion is arguably the main written way a party in a case can communicate with a judge. A motion “moves” the court (judge) to do something. It’s your opportunity to let the judge know what’s happening in the case and get him to move on it. If you feel your opponent should be sanctioned, move for sanctions. If an attorney needs to be disqualified, persuade the judge in your motion for disqualification.
The second way to communicate to a judge is through a hearing. A hearing gives you the opportunity to persuade the judge by speaking directly to him about your case. At a hearing, don’t approach the judge. If you need to get information to him or her, give it to the bailiff or other court staff.
Other than motions, pleadings and other court filings, keep correspondences to the judge to a minimum. If you absolutely must write a letter, be sure the other side gets the correspondence.
Communicating With Court Staff
Though they aren’t judges, clerks, judicial assistants, and other court staff have the ear of the judge. They can be very useful to you, and deserve your respect. Always be respectful and polite to them. The purpose of communications with court staff is to facilitate the judicial process and to resolve the case. There are things that they can and cannot do for you. So, court communications should be limited to procedural or practical matters.
Examples of allowed forms of communication
- contact the clerk’s office to see how much it costs to appeal a case
- email a judicial assistant to get suggested dates for a hearing
- contact court staff to arrange for video or telephone conferences during a hearing or trial
Examples of disallowed communications with court staff
Court staff cannot
- discuss your case with you
- talk about a judgment reached by the judge
- tell you how the judge might rule in your case
- tell you what to argue at a hearing or what cases to use
- do research for you
There is a right way and a wrong way to communicate to a judge. If you care about your case, and you feel that certain behavior is hurting it, communicate this to the judge in a motion or hearing. If the issue is urgent, file an emergency motion.
Don’t write a letter or show up at the clerk’s office with a rant. Don’t call the judge’s office or judicial assistant.
If you want to be heard loud and clear, conduct court communications the right way.