The woman got on her cell phone and started talking, loudly.
Sitting Monday on the second row in Muscogee Superior Court, she complained about the case in which a friend was being sentenced. The friend was standing before the judge, answering questions. The woman sounded bitter about this unfortunate turn of events.
Cell phones go off in court, occasionally, to visitors’ embarrassment – especially if the signature ringtone is unsuitable to the setting. But the owners usually silence their phones as fast as they can. They don’t take the call and start complaining about the case at hand.
The woman’s conduct Monday was so out of place that deputies and bailiffs were caught off guard, and she got several sentences out before the judge stopped sentencing her companion and spoke directly to her, telling her that if she kept disrupting court, she would be detained.
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Then she finally quit talking and cut her phone off.
Almost everyone who works in the court system has had a cell phone ring, including spectators, defendants, deputies, newspaper reporters, whoever had one.
Taking the call, and talking loudly, and complaining about a sentencing during a sentencing, is not just unusual, but bizarre.
Most people who have to go to court know a particular etiquette is expected, but obviously some do not.
Defense attorneys say they regularly tell clients how to conduct themselves, so defendants already in a precarious position don’t aggravate judges with obnoxious behavior.
“We generally do, because they don’t behave well,” Chief Assistant Public Defender Steve Craft said of such counseling. “We kind of make it a matter of routine.”
A cell phone ringing in court is not as common as it used to be, as deputies and bailiffs tell people going into the courtroom they can be held in contempt of court if their phones go off.
“I haven’t really seen a cell phone issue for a long time,” Craft said.
Phones still ring or chime or play music in the courtroom, occasionally, but not as often as they used to. It got to be so frequent a decade or so ago that some judges were ordering the devices confiscated.
Still other problems persist, including misbehavior and inappropriate clothing.
How to act
To advise people on what’s expected in a courtroom, the Judicial Council of Georgia’s Administrative Office of the Courts’ Access, Fairness, Public Trust and Confidence Committee created a 2005 brochure outlining courtroom etiquette. The document was revised in 2013 in consultation with Georgia’s Judicial Qualifications Commission.
Here’s what it says about going to court:
- Be punctual.
- Bring no gum, food or drinks into the courtroom. At the Columbus Government Center’s ground floor security checkpoint, visitors are not allowed to bring food or drinks into the building.
- If no disability impedes your mobility, stand when the judge enters the courtroom. Typically a deputy or bailiff says “All rise” as the judge comes in. If court already was in session and the judge just left momentarily and returned, a deputy may instead say, “Remain seated and come to order.”
- Stand when speaking to the judge, address the judge as “your honor,” and speak clearly.
- Do not interrupt the judge. Wait to ask questions if you did not understand what was said.
- Enter and leave the courtroom quietly, and don’t approach the bench unless you are told to.
How to dress
Some judges more strictly enforce a dress code than others, so what’s allowed in one courtroom may not be tolerated in another. A defense attorney says she always tells clients to dress as if they were going to church.
Typically this is what’s not allowed in court:
- Hats or other head coverings that serve no religious or medical purpose.
- Sunglasses, unless worn for a medical reason. For example, convicted “Stocking Strangler” Carlton Gary is allowed to wear sunglasses in court because of an eye condition.
- Shirts with emblems depicting “violence, sexual acts, profanity or illegal drugs.”
- Tube, halter or tank tops.
- Shirts that bare the midriff or have “plunging necklines.”
- Ripped or torn jeans.
- Baggy pants that hang below the waist.
- Miniskirts or shorts.
Often judges, bailiffs or deputies bar entry to those wearing shorts, particularly men, and this can be a recurring problem during hot summers in the South, where shorts are more common.
“Women can get away a little bit more with the shorts,” Craft said, but it depends on the judge.
Also tights or other form-fitting exercise clothing worn without additional covering such as a skirt or coat will get you barred from the courtroom.
Children are allowed in courtrooms, but parents with infants or toddlers will be asked to take them outside if the kids disrupt the proceedings.