Courtroom Observations: The Effects of External Conditions on Judicial Behavior

In Politics on 23/04/2009 at 5:09 PM

This paper will discuss the effects of outside circumstances on the behavior of courtroom personnel, most notably judges. When the goals of the courtroom work group are to handle cases quickly, maintain group unity and avoid trials, it seems that everyone involved except for the client is pushing for a plea bargain.1 There are many reasons why members of the courtroom work group2 behave the way they do, including background characteristics such as political reasons, areas of expertise and a desire to eliminate conflict, but in this paper the focus will be on the effects of gender, docket size and where the case lies on the map toward a trial date on judicial behavior.


Research Design

The research for this paper was entirely derived from courtroom observations, textbook readings and classroom discussions. Much of what is discussed comes directly from my personal experiences in the courtroom. In my time in court I was able to observe state level civil and criminal cases at two of Florida’s courthouses as well as viewing a case online from the Florida Supreme Court’s website. A majority of the cases I observed in person were at the Criminal Justice Center in the Sixth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida in Pinellas County and the rest were at the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida located in Orange County. I was able to observe a myriad of hearings along with arraignments, sentencing and oral arguments. In some instances I was able to see the same type of hearings with more than one judge giving me a well rounded knowledge of how different judges react to similar circumstances.


Process Review

In order to know what types of cases were being held at any given time one would have to be able to navigate the court’s websites and dockets. This seemingly simple process often proved to be rather cumbersome. Although the Sixth Circuit Court’s docket calendar was easy to use when compared to the other court websites, it only included information for the cases being held at the Criminal Justice Center in Pinellas Park, there was not a way to see what was being heard at any of the other courthouses within the Sixth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit Court’s docket list was somewhat easy to browse however the dockets were separated by division then by date and there was no comprehensive list of where the different divisions were. Because of this I was unable to arrive prepared, when I arrived to the main courthouse in Orlando I was made aware that the cases that I wanted to see were being held in another courthouse across the county. Unlike the docket lists online the courthouses were very easy to navigate. At both courthouses once you get inside the secure area there is a main lobby with information desks and maps to consult. This makes it easy for newcomers to find their way around these large buildings.

The courtrooms were generally unlocked about ten to fifteen minutes before the case was scheduled to begin. This allowed spectators and attorneys enough time to get comfortable, and get their last minute affairs in order. Attorneys often spent this time talking to their clients, or one another. I felt that this was the best time to get a feel for the attorneys, it was during this time frame that they often let their guard down and showed their emotions be it frustration, boredom, smugness or nervousness. This time was also often filled with surprises, quite often defendants, witnesses or even attorneys would not show up to court creating a chaotic atmosphere as it came down to the wire. In one case, State of Florida vs. Tovey, the State Attorney had just found out that the Clearwater Police Department had lost the DUI paperwork for the defendant. Without this key evidence they had to offer the defendant a plea for a lesser charge instead of beginning the trial as planned. In this case the State Attorney and Defense Attorney worked quickly to have the plea paperwork finalized before Judge Newton arrived in the courtroom.

As soon as the judge arrives the attitude in the courtroom immediately changes to a somber and businesslike tone. The agenda for the meeting is quickly set by the judge; sometimes with the help of the different attorneys should the docket be large. The first few observations were overwhelming, it was difficult to follow everything that was being said and done with the speed in which it was handled. I tried to take everything in and still write enough notes to be able to jog my memory later and it was difficult. In the courtroom everything seems to happen at such a high speed that even the defendants, victims and witnesses often looked lost. The more I observed the easier it became to understand what was happening.



In this section I plan to explore the differences I observed between the cases. No two cases were handled in the same way even if the judge and attorneys handling the case was the same. Some of these differences can simply be attributed to the circumstances of the case while others must be attributed to outside circumstances such as the gender of the judge and the experience level of the client’s representation.

A judge is expected to act as if he were an umpire in a game, passive and impartial, while presiding over an open court.3 His primary goal of allowing both sides to fully present their case within the boundaries of the law would not be reached should he have an interest in the outcome of the case.4 It seems, however, that some judges take this model too literally and end up paying little attention to the case, rushing through every motion as quickly as possible to get to the next case. Many of the judges I observed seemed to have little patience for the cases and the parties involved. Much of this can be blamed on the vast amount of cases that are seen every day due to the overcrowding of dockets. A judge simply does not have enough time to dwell on every aspect of every case with such a high number of cases coming through every day. In 2007 the Sixth Judicial Circuit of Florida alone had circuit 73,907 filings and 342,772 county filings, which works out to be about 1660 filings per work day.5 This coupled with evidence showing that the average felony trial is longer than in the past and defendants currently file more pretrial pleas and post conviction motions than in the past proves that judges are overworked. All of makes the courts more dependant on time saving methods including grouping like cases together and plea bargains.6 Overcrowding of the dockets can be a main reason for judges to become exceptionally disinterested in a case, but there are other common reasons such as the gender of the judge and the type of case or hearing which add to this.

A. Effect of Gender on Judicial Behavior

In my time in court I was able to observe four female judges and ten male judges preside over various cases. Generally speaking the female judges and justices took a more active approach to their duties and had more patience when dealing with the attorneys and their clients. In criminal cases at the trial court level I was able to observe two female judges and five male judges. It was not as easy to see discernable differences between the male and female judges in this environment because each case was different making it impossible to say exactly how a judge of the opposite gender would behave. For that reason the emphasis for this section will be on the differences observed between male and female Florida Supreme Court Justices.

While watching the Victorino vs. Florida case at the Florida Supreme Court it was easy to see the distinctions between the male and female justices as they were sitting in court. Since the justices were sitting together working on the same case it was not necessary to assume how one justice would act in a case that they were not seated for. The female Justices, Pariente and Quince were both more active and patient than their male counterparts. They asked more questions of the attorneys and were more assertive in getting answers out of the attorneys when compared to their male counterparts. During the entire case Justice Polston was silent and Justices Canady, Lewis and Wells spoke up only once or twice. Justice Labarga was the only male justice who took an active role in the case, but still to a much lesser degree than Pariente and Quince. While Canady, Lewis and Wells asked only a few questions of the attorneys they tended to get more irritated and flustered when speaking with them. This was especially true of Lewis when he was speaking with the representative of the State, Mr. Nunnelley. Instead of rephrasing and reiterating questions like Pariente and Quince did Lewis became very irritated with Mr. Nunnelley when he was not directly answering the question. Eventually Justice Lewis had to raise his voice and told Mr. Nunnelley to answer the question directly. Justices Pariente and Quince did not show irritation with the attorneys via body language or vocal tone they instead were more argumentative and forceful with the attorneys, following up with their questions until they were answered to their liking.

One reason that the female justices may have been more active in the oral argument was that they had both been on the court for over ten years, whereas all of their male counterparts besides Justice Lewis have been on the court for less than a year. Taking this knowledge into account it is possible that the men on the team were still getting used to their roles and let Justices Pariente and Quince take on the brunt of the interaction with the attorneys. On the other hand the women on the Supreme Court may be taking a more active role in the case because they were of the first women to become a part of the Florida Supreme Court and thus had to show their worth more so than the men who were appointed to the court. It is true that in this day and age people may not bat and eye at a female attorney or judge so long she is qualified for the position but when Justices Pariente and Quince began their careers in the 1970’s this was not the case. Because of this I feel that much of their hard work is engrained upon them from their early days in the field where women had to prove themselves capable of holding such an important position.

B. Effect of Case Level on Judicial Behavior

When taking the types of cases into account it does seem that judges overwhelmingly become more disinterested in the lower level hearings such as pretrial hearings, or any other time where the attorney makes it abundantly clear that they are not ready to move on to the next level. I have seen judges issue ultimatums to the attorneys stating that this is the last time they will allow the postponement of the case. One such example was with Judge Quesada during the State of Florida vs. Seymore case, during both pretrial hearings for this case the defense attorney had asked the hearing be postponed a month due to a change in his clients story. Each time at the last minute the defendant had come up with another name of a witness and the attorney wanted more time to gather depositions of the new witnesses. The attorney often would speak over Judge Quesada and it was obvious the judge was getting irritated with him. During the second pretrial hearing Judge Quesada explicitly told the defense attorney that this was the last time he would allow a continuance and that the pretrial hearing would be held on April 17th whether or not he was ready for it.

Not all Judges were as vocal about their annoyances with the constant continuance requests as Judge Quesada was in this case. One morning Judge Newton went through about twelve cases in an hour and a half, most of which were attorneys asking her for more time to prepare for their pretrial hearings. There were a few attorneys who presented good reasons as to why a continuance would be needed, such as witnesses being unable to make it to the hearing and not being able to reach the victim in a certain case, and in these instances Judge Newton seemed understanding and showed no signs of irritation when issuing the continuance for a later date. Overwhelmingly during these pretrial hearings when the attorneys were asking for a continuance it was because they were not prepared, they had not spoken with their clients or taken depositions of witnesses and in these cases Judge Newton outwardly showed her frustration by arguing with the attorneys and in her facial expressions.

As the cases get closer to the trial level judges will often show more interest in the case, whether or not they take an active role during the hearing. Judge Peters took a very passive role in the evidence hearings for State of Florida vs. McCollum; however he was taking notes and seemed to be paying close attention to what was unfolding around him. Judge Peters basically let the attorneys run the show until the State Attorney seemed to get out of hand. Judge Peters then interrupted her to remind her that he had read the file and the facts that she kept bringing up were uncontested and therefore were moot to the discussion at hand. He asked her to move on to her next point in an effort to save time.

In another case Judge Levine took a very active role in a civil hearing in the Saint Petersburg Police Department vs. Grimsley case. In this case Mr. Grimsley was trying to get money which was confiscated by the Police Department in relation to a drug charge returned to him. Mr. Grimsley did not have an attorney and chose to represent himself in this case. Before the hearing began Judge Levine took a moment to explain how the hearing would work, he let Mr. Grimsley know that the state would call witnesses against him and after they were done being questioned he would be able to cross examine them. He went on to let Mr. Grimsley know that he could also call witnesses on his behalf and that he did not have to call himself as a witness, because anything he says in this case would be able to be held against him in the criminal case. When it came time for Mr. Grimsley to cross examine the witnesses against him is was clear that he did not know what he was doing. The judge attempted to help him out by letting him know what types of questions he could ask and what he could not ask. Even with the judges help Mr. Grimsley could not figure out how to effectively ask the questions he had in his head. After a failed attempt to cross examine the first witness he decided against cross examining any further witnesses. Once it was his turn to call his witnesses he brought his girlfriend up to the stand and asked her a few questions. After she was let down from the stand Mr. Grimsley started talking about how the money the police took from him was her income tax check and Judge Levine explained to Mr. Grimsley that it was important he get council for his criminal case because he obviously did not understand how to present evidence or examine witnesses. Judge Levine allowed him to bring his girlfriend back to the stand so that he could submit the evidence and ask her questions about the money after he explained that he was unable to help him anymore because it is not fair for him to show favor towards one side of the case.

Judges are expected to be neutral parties and if they do not act neutrally by showing favor toward one side or the other they risk being removed as the judge or having their decisions overturned by an appellate court.7 One specific instance of this was discussed by the authors of Judicial Process in America; in 2006 federal district Judge Royce Lamberth was removed from a case because he accused one of the litigants in the case (the Department of the Interior) of being inherently racist. An appellate court panel removed Judge Lamberth from the case because they felt that reasonable observers of the case could believe that the judicial decision was flawed due to the openness of the judge’s animosity towards the litigant.8 It was obvious that Judge Levine did not want to cross the threshold into showing any favor towards the defendant although he could see that his lack of competent representation sealed the case unfairly. As Mr. Grimsley does not currently have an attorney for his pending criminal case I wonder if he will be given as much advice during his hearings or if he will be backed into a corner.



After reviewing the behavior of the judges and justices in these cases I feel that they are greatly affected by external factors, most notably caseload. I believe that it is difficult for a judge to be able to give each case the same amount of attention when there are so many cases being seen daily. In order to best provide justice to every victim and defendant steps must be taken to lighten the workload for the courtroom work group. A possible solution to this problem may be to lessen the number of continuances which may be granted in any given case, forcing the attorneys to work quicker and freeing up time for the judges to work on cases which are ready to be heard.

It is clear that caseload is not the only factor affecting judicial behavior but I do feel that it has more of a negative effect than the other factors looked at in this paper. The gender of the judges which may directly or indirectly affect the behavior of some women justices seems to only create a more alert and caring judge. While I saw the women judges behaving in such a way that they took a more active role in the cases I do not feel that being a male judge would make one less capable of doing their job in an effective manner, especially if the negative factor of caseload was taken care of. In this case I see the gender of the judge as being a motivating factor, just as being in any sort of minority may make one feel the need to outdo the majority.



1 Robert A. Carp, Ronald Stidham and Kenneth L. Manning, Judicial Process in America (Washington DC: CQ Press, 2007), 63-4.

2 Walter F. Murphy et al, Courts, Judges, & Politics: An Introduction to the Judicial Process (New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 2006), 619.

3 Walter F. Murphy et al, Courts, Judges, & Politics: An Introduction to the Judicial Process (New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 2006), 42.

4 Robert A. Carp, Ronald Stidham and Kenneth L. Manning, Judicial Process in America (Washington DC: CQ Press, 2007), 242–3.

5 “Annual Performance Report.” Sixth Judical Circuit of Florida. (accessed Apr 1, 2009)

6 Robert A. Carp, Ronald Stidham and Kenneth L. Manning, Judicial Process in America (Washington DC: CQ Press, 2007), 223.

7 Robert A. Carp, Ronald Stidham and Kenneth L. Manning, Judicial Process in America (Washington DC: CQ Press, 2007), 242–3.

8 Robert A. Carp, Ronald Stidham and Kenneth L. Manning, Judicial Process in America (Washington DC: CQ Press, 2007), 243.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: