How Accurate Are Television Depictions of American Courtrooms?
August 17, 2007 8:09 AM   Subscribe

Is it really that dramatical/theatrical in a court of law?

There are countless (US) TV shows and movies that depict both lawyers and judges talking down or generally doing all sorts of theatrics in courts of law that make me wonder... how much does the American legal system allow for this?

For example:

1. Would the theatrics of Alan Shore or Denny Krane [Boston Legal] be tolerated in a proper court of law? Would this lead to disbarment?

2. When giving verdicts we often have judges "talking down" defendants/lawyers... often giving their own opinions and chastising them on their morality. Is this allowed?

3.Are there any real-world lawyers who have made their trademark such utterances/effects?

4. Do the plaintiffs, defendants, lawyers and judges have any legal redress for such shenanigans?
posted by gadha to Grab Bag (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I was in court once for a lawsuit my friend was pursuing. To be honest, it was pretty boring. I got to see a couple of the cases that were handled before his, and they were all very cut-and-dry - they were all small-claims lawsuits and had been settled out of court, so the attorneys were there just to explain the situation for the judge.

My friend's lawyer, however, seemed to really be trying to emulate the characters from TV. He was a young guy, though, so maybe he was just getting a little overzealous.

The judge did ask my friend and I what we do for a living. We were students at the time and he asked us a few questions about where we went to school and how classes were treating us.

If you're really curious, though, most courts are open to the public - you can usually sit in on most of the proceedings. Go down to your county courthouse and check it out!
posted by backseatpilot at 8:17 AM on August 17, 2007

As a general rule, and like most other things on TV, real court does not mirror TV court at all. My father is the District Attorney of our county and so I've seen a few's not that theatrical.

1. It all depends on the judge, of course, but most of the ones I've seen don't tolerate too much. It's not really a problem because real lawyers don't really do that, I don't think.

2. I have never seen a judge talk down a lawyer, but it happens with defendants, especially in juvenile cases. The judge will often speak directly to the defendant to in essence tell him that he's getting off easy and that the judge doesn't want to see him in court again, or something to that effect. Don't see it as much in adult cases, but that's not to say it doesn't happen. Much rarer with lawyers though.

3. I'm afraid I cannot answer that, sorry. Surely someone else will know, though.

4. By shenanigans you mean dramatic/theatrical stuff, right? All the judge has to do is tell the lawyer to cool off or whatever--same thing he does when the opposing side objects to a line of questioning and he (the judge) agrees. The lawyers in the trial can object to such things I'm sure, and so through them the defendant and plaintiff could have a say. This really doesn't come up very often.

Hopefully that helps some....just realize, what you see on TV is fun and interesting, it just isn't like real life.
posted by DMan at 8:17 AM on August 17, 2007

Last year, I was on the jury for a case involving weapons used in connection with drug trafficking. It was mostly pretty boring, even though the defendant's life was at stake. However, during the closing statements for the prosecution, one of the assistant DA's made a bit of a show with some of the physical evidence. He held up a bag of seized cocaine in one hand and a shotgun in the other and said "This case is about this gun and these drugs!" in an emphatic tone. They also made sure the shotgun and another gun were available in the jury room for us to play with (along with some other mundane evidence). Alas, the cocaine was put back in the lockup and the jury pool wasn't allowed to touch it.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:23 AM on August 17, 2007

No, tv lawyers get away with a lot more than real lawyers do, and a vast majority of the drama moments on law shows would result in objections and sanctions.

There are procedure rules, and most of the drama moments allow the lawyers to lead or testify for the witness, which isn't allowed in a real proceeding. There are also rules which tend to prevent the prosecution from springing surprise evidence on the proceedings.

Redress for shenanigans usually fall under contempt of court citings- if someone keeps doing something inadmissible and disruptive, the judge can find them in contempt of court.

Very good lawyers can get a good head of steam going during opening and closing, because those parts of a trial are technically not evidence. That's where you get the good southern lawyers preaching, and the Johnny Cochrans of the world practicing the fine art of rhetoric- if it doesn't fit, you MUST acquit!

However, on #2- when a judge hands down a sentence, s/he can say anything s/he likes (within the law,) and s/he often takes the opportunity to give his/her opinion on the case. For example, and here and here for reference.

And if you've ever tuned into Court TV, you will see that in general- lawyers are no better speakers or actors than your average segment of society, and legal proceedings tend to be dull, plodding affairs. It's like watching people conduct business because... well, that's what they're doing.
posted by headspace at 8:24 AM on August 17, 2007

I should also add that the felony trial lasted all of 1 1/2 days. Even the defense attorney seemed to want to wrap things up by lunch the second day.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:24 AM on August 17, 2007

With better lawyers you do get some potent theater, but even then there are typically long stretches of tedium. I could not imagine a more boring job than being a trial judge. Openings and closings from a good lawyer can be quite a treat though. As for Denny Krane, he would never get away with that crap in a real court.
posted by caddis at 8:29 AM on August 17, 2007

I've been in court frequently as a federal law clerk, and also recently as a juror in state court. The proceedings in both courts are very gripping if you're involved in them. If you aren't directly involved, it usually won't seem too interesting. Not like TV at all. Even when something dramatic does happen, it's usually *legally* dramatic -- that is, only trained lawyers will realize what the defense or prosecution has just pulled off! Not really made for TV.

There usually aren't that many theatrics in the federal court because the attorneys are very professional and they know that that doesn't really fly with juries and judges. Rather than big dramatic explosions from lawyers, you'll see things like the defendant's sister weeping quietly but inconsolably in the hallway after the jury comes back and delivers a verdict that means her little brother is going away for a long time because of mandatory sentences. The other time you might see lots of emotion is during sentencings, which the judge does a few weeks/months after the trial or plea. The defendant gets to speak directly to the judge and say he's sorry or whatever, and the judge might speak back directly to the defendant and give him a stern or tender warning to shape up. But although they're always gravely serious, even sentencings are usually pretty emotionally subdued.

By contrast, when I was on jury duty in state court, the prosecutor was a bit of a hack and seemed to be trying to emulate TV (rather than the other way around.) It was irritating and almost laughable, but we convicted anyway.

In the end, I think that most good lawyers opt for a calm, nondramatic style and do not try to be TV lawyers. They know that calm control gives them the most credibility, because it's so easy to seem insincere and hysterical if you go for the dramatics when you're not good at it. I recently saw the high profile defense lawyer Mark Geragos do an opening statement to a jury, and he was remarkably low-key.
posted by footnote at 8:33 AM on August 17, 2007

1. The usual outcome for a lawyer who is too theatrical is that the judge will start ruling against them in discretionary matters (e.g., extensions of time, exceeding page limits on filings, etc). And judges talk to one another, so word gets around pretty fast if a lawyer is being a prat. Disbarment or censure are very extreme remedies and are pretty rare. More likely is a malpractice suit if the lawyer's behavior negatively affects the client's case.

2. Of course judges some times, as you put it, talk down a defendant or party. Their job is to, you know, judge people. I've read a few orders admonishing one or both parties to follow the local rules of the court, to refrain from wasting time, etc. Usually they're not written in a very harsh style, but given the extremely reserved nature of most judicial writing, even a hint of opprobrium is harsh in that context.

3. Well, Joe Jamail is known for having a pretty rough style. You can see him conducting a deposition in this famous video. Note that depositions, such as that one, are not in court, so it's a little looser, decorum-wise.

4. Redress? Well, the court can certainly hold parties in contempt if they get really out of hand, and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11 is a general sanctions provision often invoked by one party when the other party is being frivolous or trying to waste time or money.
posted by jedicus at 8:35 AM on August 17, 2007

I was on a jury for a criminal trial here in Australia. It was fairly relaxed, not as intense and rigid as one might gather from watching TV.

One of the most interesting diversions from TV depictions was in the matter of objections. When one lawyer raised an objection, both he and the opposing lawyer would attempt to settle the dispute without the judge's intervention. If that didn't seem to work, then the judge would make a ruling on it.

Was kinda neat.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 8:37 AM on August 17, 2007

I could not imagine a more boring job than being a trial judge.
posted by caddis at 11:29 AM on August 17 [+] [!]

You must not be a lawyer caddis! Trials are considered a big treat by most of us in the profession. I guess being a state court judge cranking through burglary cases could get a little dry, but most of us would give our eyeteeth for the job nonetheless. Four-week-long Lanham Act cases excepted.
posted by footnote at 8:37 AM on August 17, 2007

My dad gets away with more than most (recently, I hear that he made a point about something by more-or-less accusing the (very young, inexperienced) prosecutor in one of his cases of masturbating during the proceedings), but he's labored for thirty years to get there. And he's still far from a Denny Kane.

I think a lot of lawyers like to watch Boston Legal because they fantasize about being able to pull some of that stuff off.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 9:12 AM on August 17, 2007

Short answer: No.

Long answer: No, No, Not really, and Yes.
posted by The World Famous at 9:20 AM on August 17, 2007

I was a juror in two felony trials. It wasn't dramatic at all, except one of the trials was a murder trial and some gang members were in the audience to try to intimidate one of the witnesses, who was terrified. Other than that it's not exciting, but the process is fascinating.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:20 AM on August 17, 2007

I have sat on a jury about 10 times. I find that the lawyers usually behave themselves. The judge is another matter. It depends on the judge. I find many a pretty lame but there are exceptions where they are really good. I sat through a trial (not a jury trial) where a young man was charged with "possession." He was parked in the parking lot of a restaurant (and bar). The cops just drove up to him and insisted he roll down his window. They smelled booze and searched his car and found an old pipe under the backseat of the car. The young man's laywer tried to make the case that they had no 'probable cause' to even approach him in a parked car. The stupid judge said well the young man could have just driven away. I wonder how many people would do that with a small-town cop standing there with a gun at his side. So there are all kinds and this judge was as theatrical as the judge in the Duke rape case. You just never know.
posted by JayRwv at 9:23 AM on August 17, 2007

I can't answer any of your questions, but #2 is certainly possible. When I was assaulted on a subway during sentencing the judge ripped my attacker a new one. It was only 4th degree sexual assault, but he told the guy he wanted to put him away for 10 years, what he did was a "terroristic act", and he should try to sentence him under the Patriot Act as an enemy combatant. It was kind of nuts. The guy ended up going away for a year, so a lot of that was just bluster.
posted by schroedinger at 10:02 AM on August 17, 2007

and he should try to sentence him under the Patriot Act as an enemy combatant.

And what was this guy's name? I think if someone ever attacks me, I want to be in his court.
posted by DMan at 10:24 AM on August 17, 2007

Your question implies that you're asking about whether or not *US* courts are like *US* TV. Common-law countries like the UK, Australia and NZ have a far more toned-down code of conduct in court. As thatotherguy points out above, it's all pretty low-key and there is an expectation that prosecution and defence will sort out the issues as between themselves.

What gets really funny is when you have a witness who has primed themselves for the court experience by watching every US courtroom soap they can find. If they really wanted to work out how the system worked, they should watch Rumpole of the Bailey. Seriously. That show is just about a documentary.
posted by tim_in_oz at 4:52 PM on August 17, 2007

I work in a Divorce Law office, so the juicier cases can be fairly juicy. I heard today in court, in a child support dispute with criss-crossing orders of protection, a man complained loudly to the judge, " But Judge! She's harassing both my wife and my girlfriend!!".
Poor guy.
posted by readery at 5:34 PM on August 17, 2007

If real lawyers were like Alan Shore, I'd spend a lot more time hanging around courtrooms batting my eyelashes, that's for sure.
posted by you're a kitty! at 5:38 PM on August 17, 2007

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