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Careful what you ask

Sitting in the courtroom the other day, the following funny story came to mind. In a trial, the prosecuting attorney called his first witness, a grandmotherly elderly woman, to the stand.

He approached her and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know me?”

She responded, “Why, yes, I do know you, Richard. I’ve known you since you were a young boy, and frankly, you have been a big disappointment to me. You lie, you cheat on your wife, and you manipulate people and talk about them behind their backs. You think you’re a big shot when you haven’t the brains to realize you never will amount to anything more than a two-bit paper pusher. Yes, I know you.” The lawyer was stunned.

Not knowing what else to do, he pointed across the room and asked Mrs. Jones, “Do you know the defense attorney?”

She again replied, “Why, yes I do. I’ve known Tom since he was a youngster. He’s lazy, bigoted and he has a drinking problem. He can’t build a normal relationship with anyone and his law practice is one of the worst in the entire state, not to mention he cheated on his wife with three different women; one of them was your wife. Yes, I know him.” The defense attorney almost died.

The judge asked both counselors to approach the bench and in a very quiet voice, said, “If either of you idiots asks her if she knows me, I’ll find you in contempt of court.”

While the above was just a story, quite often a judge will call a case and realize he knows one of the litigants or witnesses, and realize he has a problem. If he knows any of the people appearing, he should not hear the case. Even the appearance of impropriety is wrong.

You can tell the litigants, “I know this person” and explain how you know them.

If everyone agrees it is OK to go ahead and hear the case, you could continue, but even that is dangerous because too often after you rule, the losing party will become angry and accuse you of favoring one side. Very seldom is the winning party unhappy. I had a good friend sanctioned because after everyone agreed and he heard the case, the losing party complained to the commission on judicial conduct.

Lesson: If there is even the slight chance there could be the appearance of impropriety, give the case to another judge.