TIM CHITWOOD: Know the protocol before you go to court

January 19, 2014 

It seemed the realization of an idea I had long ago, when I noted many folks facing traffic charges for the first time in Columbus Recorder's Court were just clueless.

They didn't know the protocol -- how to address the judge, how to plea, how to say no more than needed to avoid getting in even more trouble.

I suggested to then-Judge William Slaughter that locals needed a printed guide on how to conduct themselves in court.

Slaughter didn't think so: It's just basic courtesy, he told me. Anyone with good manners should be able to handle it.

This was back in the 1980s, and even then it seemed quaint to think people still had manners. Now it sounds more retro, as if the courtroom's some "Downton Abbey" set where suspects show up in Victorian garb and call the judge "your lordship" after handing their hats and gloves to a footman.

Today they're more likely to show up wearing tights and tank tops and flip-flops with their cell phones blasting ringtones.

So, while visiting the Superior Court clerk's office last week, I was pleased to see a stack of brochures titled "Basic Rules of Court Conduct," first produced in 2005 and revised in 2013 by the Judicial Council of Georgia's Administrative Office of the Courts.

It warns people what conduct can get them in even more trouble:

• "Never interrupt the judge. If you are unsure of what you heard, wait until the judge … has finished talking before asking. …"

• "Always address the judge as 'Your honor.'"

• "Your phone or device should be turned off or placed on silent mode before entering so that you do not disrupt the court."

• "Throw away gum, food, and drinks before entering the courtroom."

Also crucial is the dress code visitors can get kicked out for violating. Here's what's prohibited:

• Sunglasses, hats or other headgear of no religious or medical purpose.

• Tube tops, halter tops, "muscle shirts," "plunging necklines," "bare midriffs."

• Torn jeans, miniskirts, shorts, or baggy pants sagging below the waist.

A recurring issue in Recorder's Court is the reaction of those dissatisfied with the outcome: They shout, grumble, stand up to argue, or barge angrily into the lobby to fight with each other. Sometimes they wind up in jail.

"Attempts to disrupt the court once the judge has made a ruling could result in your being held in contempt (which could include jail time and/or a fine)," reads the brochure.

You can find this handout online at www.georgiacourts.gov.

Tim Chitwood, tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.com, 706-571-8508.

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