Common Sense in Dealing with Court Staff

by Jamison Koehler on February 14, 2014

It is a foolish lawyer who offends court personnel.

During my first year as a public defender in Philadelphia, one of my colleagues made the mistake of being less than respectful toward a court clerk in a preliminary hearing room. Passing the word to his colleagues, the clerk did his best to make her life as miserable as possible thereafter.

Because this was our first opportunity to review police reports, we used to get to the district building early so that we could review the “quarter session files” before the hearings began. It is true that you have the right to review your clients’ files, the clerk told her.  Feel free to check them out at the Criminal Justice Center.

Many of the “tipstaff” in Philly were brusque with lawyers and disrespectful of our indigent clients. Because of obsequious private attorneys who were eager to get their cases called first so that they make their next court appointment, we knew far more about the personal lives of two clerks in the domestic relations room – April and Effie – than we might have desired.  (If I recall correctly, one of them even had baby pictures posted on the walls of the courtroom.)

The all-time worst member of the court staff was someone we referred to not so affectionately as “Fat Danny.”  Danny used to play spider solitaire on his computer while lawyers crowded around him.  After Danny was caught scheduling the next court dates for defendants on days in which he was not in court, thereby assuring himself of a light docket, we were sure that he would be fired, or at least re-assigned.  His cheery face was there to greet us the following Monday.

It was thus a tremendous surprise — and relief – when I came to D.C. to find that the in-court personnel here are, almost without exception, polite, respectful and professional.

If I had one complaint at all, it would have been that the clerks do not always keep us informed on the status of our cases. Simply telling you, for example, that there was a delay with the paperwork but that your case would be called soon would go far in making life more manageable.  You can decide whether to handle a matter in a different room first.  You have something to tell the client to explain the delay.  And you can settle back into your chair with the knowledge that you are on the radar screen and that your case will be called shortly.  There is nothing worse than being stuck behind a long guilty plea with a courtroom full of other lawyers and no end in sight.  And there is something wonderfully affirming about just being acknowledged.

I have concluded, however, that the reason court clerks do not do this more often is because, lawyers being lawyers, we will often have a good idea how our case could be squeezed in.  Simply calling the docket avoids these debates.

I have learned to check in early, especially when I will be handling a matter in another courtroom first. I have also learned to let court staff know (1) if there is a co-defendant and (2) what other courtrooms I will be in so that they can reach me if my case is about to be called.

We have an interest in getting our case called early.  They have an interest in getting all the cases called quickly and efficiently.  Common sense and a little respect on both sides, and life suddenly looks pretty good.

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