VIEWPOINT: Are the courts the last bastion of civility?
This political season has been unusually bitter, perhaps more so than any election in memory. Name calling, profanity, scurrilous accusations, threats, actual violence and demonizing of one's opponent. By the time you read this it may all be over to our collective relief.
There are few venues remaining where civil discourse and exchange of ideas can occur: some college classrooms, church meetings, Rotary and Lions Club meetings; and courtrooms where judges are responsible for maintaining decorum. Visitors to the court will see signs: no hats, no gum chewing, no cellphones, no newspapers allowed. The audience is expected to sit quietly while court is in session. Court hearings are not public hearings: no comment is allowed except by the participating parties, their attorneys and witnesses. However, civility is something else in the litigation process.
I fear that this incivility is spreading like a virus into the manner in which citizens approach litigation in the courts, particularly in family cases. This may be a result of the numerous "Judge Judy"-style TV programs.
In this time of Facebook, email and text messaging, child custody litigants are frequently filing lengthy affidavits which primarily allege that their spouse or the other parent of their children is unfit to even make their child a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or adequately change their baby's diaper, let alone have physical custody or significant parenting time (visitation) with the child. Parties also attempt to influence the judge's custody decision by alleging salacious and slanderous facts about relatives of the other parent, such as "his brother is in prison" or "her sister had an abortion," both of which are irrelevant to what is in the best interests of the children. Parties frequently make allegations about the other parent's childhood, such as they were expelled from school or had chemical dependency treatment as a teen, which may have happened 20 to 30 years ago. They may also attach dozens of pages of profanity-laden emails or text messages or Facebook postings, all intended to besmirch the character and fitness of the other parent.
Technology has enabled these litigants to engage in what was referred to in the 1970s as dirty tricks.
Parties will hide video cameras in the family home to record for posterity the misbehavior of their spouse. They record telephone conversation, attach GPS units to vehicles, or hire private investigators to catch their spouse committing adultery. They will search the family computer for incriminating material viewed or communicated by their spouse.
Armed with hundreds of pages of affidavits lambasting the other parent, these family court litigants charge into court like it is the Jerry Springer show.
When the parties appear in court without attorneys, and they have no familiarity with the rules of court decorum, it can be a challenge for the judge to insure that these rules are followed, that the parties act civilly to one another, and that they act respectfully to the judge.
The judge represents society and the rule of law. Hearings cannot be interrupted by shouting, comments from onlookers or abusive conduct. Litigants should think twice about encouraging their lawyer to take a "scorched earth" or "take no prisoners" approach to litigation.
The Minnesota Supreme Court has issued a document entitled "Professional Aspirations" governing conduct of judges and lawyers including the following:
"A lawyer owes courtesy, candor, cooperation and compliance with all agreements and mutual understanding to opposing counsel, in the conduct of an office practice and in pursuit of the resolution of legal issues. As professionals, ill feelings between clients should not influence our conduct, attitude, or demeanor toward opposing counsel. Conduct that may be characterized as uncivil, abrasive, hostile or obstructive impedes the fundamental goal of resolving disputes rationally, peacefully and efficiently. A lawyer owes the same duty to an opposing party who is pro se."
So, what is the moral of all of this: when involved in a lawsuit, be respectful and accentuate the positive.
In family cases, describe succinctly in affidavits, but with adequate detail, the relationship between parent and child, the family history of caring for the child, and the parent's philosophy of child rearing.
In conciliation court, describe in clear detail what you alleged happened and document those facts as much as possible with contracts, photos and other written evidence. In all court proceedings, be respectful of one's opponent and the court.
In doing so, you will promote the efficient administration of justice and might be surprised with the result. Both you and the opposing party will have participated in a process which follows the rule of law in a democratic society.
Remember, it's in your court.
Steve Halsey is chambered in Wright County District Court in Buffalo. Halsey is the host of "The District Court Show" on local cable TV public access channels throughout the Tenth Judicial District. Excerpts can be viewed at qctv.org/ districtcourtshow. Halsey may also be heard on "Legal Happenings" on KRWC 1360 AM (Buffalo) at 12:30 p.m. on Saturdays.