August 25, 2023 • By Dennis Beaver
If you are headed to court as a witness or a party in a lawsuit, there are a lot of ways you can do real damage to your chances of success, several of which are common sense, but others you don’t want to learn the hard way.
Who better then to speak with for practical advice than Anthony J. Mohr, a Superior Court judge who is a friend of this column and spent over 20 years on the bench in Los Angeles and recently retired.
I also ran one important issue by California State University, Bakersfield, professor of psychology Luis Vega, whose academic focus is persuasion.
I asked, “What are some of the things that will reduce or harm your chances of success, the things not to do?
(1) Fail to dress appropriately and think “Well, it’s a free country and I should be able to wear anything I want.”
Consequences: “Judges are usually conservative and they will relate better to people who are conservatively dressed than a person full of tattoos, piercings and wild clothing. This is reality. Your appearance matters,” Judge Mohr stressed.
“Regardless of your appearance, we will listen to you, and try to be fair, but you will relate better if you dress in a conservative, modest way. There are studies that prove a witness who fails to dress in an appropriate manner for court harms their credibility.”
Remember Head & Shoulders shampoo ads?
Vega had a take on appearance that was a walk back in time to old television commercials.
“The Head & Shoulders commercial, that ‘the first impression is the last impression,’ needs to be heeded in the settings where we seek a positive outcome for ourselves. And don’t rely on luck. You may only get one chance,” he said.
“So, when going to court, dress like you are applying for an office job. For men, tuck in your shirt and for women, forget the high heels or short skirts. Leave your jewelry at home,” he recommends.
(2) Fail to answer the question. Instead, give a rambling history of all the events leading up to your being in court today.
Consequences: “You will upset the entire courtroom. The jury won’t appreciate this one iota as you are wasting their time.
“So, answer the question. If you need to clarify the context, do so after you respond, and ask the judge or the attorney, “May I please explain?” Generally, you will be allowed if you have answered the question.”
“A good example of rambling and not answering the question can be seen on the Judge Judy television show,” Mohr observes. “This frustrates her to no end and while she may be more transparent in her voicing displeasure, judges and attorneys do not appreciate a witness who gives them a history lesson of their case.”
(3) Lie. Believe that you are the smartest person in the courtroom and twist the facts, certain that no one will ever know.
Consequences: “Knowingly lying in court about a material fact is perjury and carries a possible 5-year prison sentence in most jurisdictions. Never think that you can pull one over on the lawyers or the court, as they have all read the pleadings, declarations, and have a good idea of the facts.
“Juries are told that if they find a witness has testified falsely about one thing, they can, if they choose, disregard all of that witness’ testimony as being unreliable and not credible.
“So, it isn’t worth it.”
(4) Show up late. After all, the judge has lots of other cases that can be heard if you aren’t on time, so no one is harmed.
Consequences: “Court etiquette requires that you show up on time. Nothing shows disrespect more easily than coming into the courtroom late.
Courts – especially family courts – have massive calendars. To function smoothly, parties and their witnesses must be present on time or before. A guaranteed way to lose respect of the judge and courtroom personnel, and even your own lawyer, is to be late to your court date.
“If you will be out of town, let your lawyer or the court clerk know well in advance of the court date. If you were representing yourself and can’t make it on the scheduled date or time, consider hiring a lawyer for the purpose of making the appearance on your behalf.
“Finally, if you do none of those things and just don’t show up, you will probably bed charged criminally with a failure to appear.
(5) Interrupt anyone who is saying things that you disagree with, including the Judge. Don’t let them get away with damaging your case or reputation!
Consequences: “By interrupting the judge, magistrate or anyone that’s talking, you could be held in contempt, fined and even do time in jail! You’ve got to be polite to everyone in the courthouse.
You must wait until it’s your turn.”
Concluding our chat, Judge Mohr said with a broad smile, “And remember, you catch a lot more flies with honey than vinegar”
And for real-life examples of how a judge can react when these rules are not respected, I recommend watching reruns of the court TV show Judge Judy, starring Judge Judy Sheindlin, or watch her new series, Judy Justice.