Legal Environment of Business
Steven Wales, J.D.
Guidelines for the Court Observation
Please consider the following guidelines.
- Use the telephone to locate a courtroom where something interesting will be happening. The best “sure thing” may be a trial in progress. Day one of a trial can be interesting, but it may settle. If it’s a trial covering multiple days, you face less risk of the parties settling. Docket call can also be interesting, or hearings on motions. I think criminal court will be much more interesting than civil, but it is up to you.
- Dress professionally. A coat and tie may not be necessary, but think of it this way—the better you dress, the better you will be treated. This is more true in the courthouse than anywhere else. If you look like a lawyer, you will be treated like one. But if you dress extremely casual, people will assume you are either the accused, or the family of the accused. These parties are not treated quite as well.
- Bring a notebook and a pen and paper. Be prepared to take a few notes.
- Turn off or silence your cell phone. If that thing goes off while the judge is on the bench, you may be removed from the courtroom. Most of the judges are old (even to me) and they do not like phones ringing or any other distractions.
(I realize some of you may have completed your reports. If so, just review the following suggestions. You will note that this material is consistent with the instructions on the syllabus.)
The Report should include the following:
- Name of the Court and the presiding judge or magistrate.
- Description of the activities (trial, hearing on a motion, docket call, etc.)
- If it is a trial, who are the parties? (Jones v. Smith—civil, or State v. Jones—criminal) This information may be on the docket control sheet posted outside the courtroom. Or you may have to ask around. (For this or any other questions, politely step into the area where the court’s clerks are located—usually on the same floor as the courtroom—and introduce yourself and ask for someone who can help you.)
- Draft a narrative. Give me some paragraphs. What is happening? Who is arguing? What are they talking about? Do you understand it? What result does side A want? What result does side B want? What decisions is the judge making? If there are jurors, what are they saying? What do they seem to be thinking?
- Finally, give me a paragraph of your own feelings. How did you feel about the experience? Was it boring? Interesting? Scary? Were you impressed by anyone? Were you embarrassed by anyone (or for anyone)? Did anyone act outrageous in any way? Which parts of this observation will you tell your friends about?
- Did you learn anything about the law, or about courtroom procedure?