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You Can’t Tell What The Judge Is Thinking By Braxton Mounteer, Legal Assistant

I recently accompanied my boss to the trial of a divorce case. If I had had to place a bet on what the judge was thinking at given moment or what the rulings would have been during the trial or at the end, I would have left the courtroom much poorer. One of the things that struck me most about trial was my inability to determine the importance a judge gives to the evidence and to witness testimony. I could not consistently predict which way the judge was leaning at any given moment. But it’s not solely a matter of my inexperience with the legal system. My boss (who has considerable trial experience) told me he encounters the same thing.

We believe this is intentional on the judge’s part, that judges deliberately wear a poker face (some better than others). If a judge expressively reacted to a piece of evidence or to testimony, it might give a false (or true) indication that the judge is favoring one party over the other.

An actual trial is not like the movies and television shows would have you believe (at least at a divorce trial isn’t). There was no audible gasp from one side or the other when a piece of evidence was entered. The lawyers don’t (at least not typically) swagger around the court room cracking wise or orating so as to bring the room to tears. It really was just the evidence and argument from one party versus evidence and argument of the other.

Now a judge being inscrutable is not to say the judge sits stone-faced and silent until the trial ended. The judge can and usually will make clear and candid statements occasionally during the trial. Sometimes the judge will ask a witness questions of his or her own, but sparingly (judges are discouraged from doing too much of their own questioning). And the judge obviously must rule on objections raised during the questioning of witnesses too. During recesses, the judges and attorneys and sometimes even the parties and witnesses may chat about sports or local news to unwind a bit from the tension that builds up over the course of the trial. Some judges will essentially let the lawyers go until the time runs out. Other judges may inform the parties and their lawyers whether the direction they are taking the case in isn’t all that useful to the court in reaching its ultimate decision.

The notion of “reasonable minds can differ” stands out in stark relief at a trial. Sometimes what the lawyer tries to persuade the court to do and what the court decided are the same, but other times what the court did with the evidence can really surprise you. Keep that in mind when you’re convinced that the judge could not possibly rule any way but the way you favor. The better you understand all the possible arguments, the more accurately, reasonably, and persuasively you can make yours.

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