What non-lawyers think of judges | Marcel Strigberger

By Marcel Strigberger

Law360 Canada (August 11, 2023, 2:42 PM EDT) --
Marcel Strigberger
Is ignorance often bliss for lay people having contact with the legal system?

I have noticed that non-lawyers enjoy a much more relaxed attitude with the judicial environment than we lawyers do. Lay people have no qualms expressing themselves with complete candour.

For example when a judge enters the courtroom, he or she takes a short bow towards the body of the court and the lawyers return the compliment, taking a bow back.

I noticed a number of times lay people look at one another, emitting a smile. One client gave the judge a thumbs up. The judge looked puzzled, as if she thought, “I must have done something right already.”

Many lawyers also tend to throw dubious flattering phrases at the judge immediately. They announce their names saying something like, “If it please Your Honour, my name is Lawrence Coopersmith representing the plaintiff.” 

This salutation reminds me I think of that song those Siamese cats sing in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, “We are Siamese if you please. We are Siamese if you don’t, please.”

Clients will often resort to comments evoked by emotion. I once represented a gentleman in an impaired driving charge. He was a proud WWII Navy veteran who obviously had experienced more trying experiences than this indictment. In the midst of a robust cross-examination by the prosecutor he said with utter confidence, “You are harassing me with all these questions. I spent years in a submarine dodging depth charges. There is nothing you can do to me.”

The young prosecutor was taken aback a bit, obviously shaken. The judge who seemed somewhat bored to this point suddenly perked up. He said to the client, “Mr. Cerniek, we do acknowledge your service to our country, but please just answer Ms. Fitzmichael’s questions and we shall all be out of here soon.”

I thought to myself a lawyer could never go off on that tangent like that. It would, however, indeed be refreshing and liberating to be able to say to a judge, “Your Honour, you say my witness’s comment is hearsay. But you must admit this testimony. After all I served for three years as a Navy commando.”

I somehow doubt whether the judge would then say, “Actually counsel serving as a commando is an exception to the hearsay rule.” 

I also recall a matrimonial case where the judge ordered my client, a musician, to pay his wife some arrears of support. My client Rick did not like this ruling, and he told the judge outright, “For that amount of money I can get myself a new set of drums.”

The judge added that in default of payment, Rick would have to spend some time in jail.

I cringed as Rick was behind in paying my fees. Though tempted to express myself with the client’s candour, I restrained myself from saying, “Your Honour, with that amount of money Rick can pay off my outstanding fees account.” Where is the justice?

Lay people have no problems telling the judge outright what they think of the judicial system. I was in court once when the case before mine involved a short hearing where the judge had to assess a legal bill between a lawyer and her client. The client wasted no time jumping on the judge saying, “I know the outcome exactly. You judges and lawyers stick together like glue.”

The judge actually went on the defensive, presumably trying to refute the client’s suspicions about any possible systematic bias. I don’t know if he succeeded.

I did, however, think to myself that I would have liked to be before this judge in that case where Rick still owed me that money.

And lay people’s relaxed attitude towards judges is also apparent out of the courtroom. One of our Toronto courthouses houses trial courtrooms on the upper floors of a high-rise. There are no separate elevators for the judges. During a break as my client and I were about to enter an elevator, when we noticed the trial judge heading for the same elevator. I hit my brakes as did other colleagues, allowing the judge to enter by herself.

My client was surprised. He said to me, “That was our judge. Why didn’t we ride down with her? We could have explained that traffic signal to her better.”

This comment had a couple of colleagues who overheard it giggling. The truth probably is we all likely shared this unattainable fantasy. After all we’re lawyers.  

And what happens when we come across judges out of the courthouse?

As lawyers, do we unwittingly deify judges? Judges often have lunch at restaurants near the courthouse. I do not recall ever coming near one and engaging him or her in a dialogue. I thought of that Old Testament scene with Lot’s wife. I almost felt if I did, I would instantly turn into a pillar of salt.

A client of mine once noticed my discomfort. When I told him there was a judge sitting at a nearby table, he said, “Wow! I’ll bet you thought judges don’t have to eat.”

Judges certainly can wield power, deciding whether you get money or freedom. Lawyers are more uptight about this than the public. I think of that comment by that iconic comedian and former film star Mae West in a courtroom scene in My Little Chickadee where the judge says:

“Are you trying to show contempt for this court?’

West, in her character as Flower Belle, responds, “On the contrary your Honor, I’m doing my best to hide it.”

Now what are the chances of a lawyer ever coming up with a gem response like that?

Are we lawyers too invested in the system? I think of Mark Twain who said, “All you need is ignorance and confidence; then success is assured.”


Marcel Strigberger retired from his Greater Toronto Area litigation practice and continues the more serious business of humorous author and speaker. His book Boomers, Zoomers, and Other Oomers: A Boomer-biased Irreverent Perspective on Aging is now available on Amazon, (e-book) and paper version. Visit www.marcelshumour.com. Follow him @MarcelsHumour.

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