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Judge: Make a boo-boo, repent with a bouquet

Making lawyers pay for mistakes with flowers is all in fun, the judge says. But one attorney discovers the rose has thorns.

Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 8, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - Everything's coming up roses these days in Circuit Judge Thomas E. Penick Jr.'s courtroom.

Or tulips, or carnations, or a nice spring arrangement. Whatever the court reporter prefers.

Penick has a new policy of directing lawyers who make certain missteps in court to order a dozen flowers or a box of candy for the court reporter.

If lawyers speak over each other, or incorrectly cite a case, or resume speaking before the court reporter is at her station, they get the peony penalty.

"It's just a little thing that we're doing," Penick said Monday. "I'm not trying to be mean or do anything other than show respect for the court staff."

In the few months the policy has been in place, some days in the courtroom have been, er ... rosier than others. At one trial, Penick said, "that courtroom looked like a florist shop."

Lawyers who do business in Penick's court - and may face the judge in court again - say they see the humor and learned a lesson. David A. Demers, chief judge of the Pinellas-Pasco circuit, called the unorthodox courtroom punishment "a clever, kind-hearted, untraditional method" of maintaining decorum.

But Mark Dobson, who teaches trial advocacy at Nova Southeastern University School of Law in Fort Lauderdale, questioned the quirky rule.

"It puts the lawyers in a very difficult situation," Dobson said. "They're being required to spend money to purchase something for court personnel."

One local lawyer recently learned the consequences of not following the order. Ken Weiss, a Treasure Island lawyer more accustomed to brokering business deals than appearing in court, stumbled over a case citation last month in Penick's courtroom.

The infraction was a small one, so Penick directed Weiss to order just a half-dozen flowers.

The flowers never showed. What did appear was a letter from Penick to Weiss, scolding the attorney for not following the judge's instructions and reminding Weiss of the lawyer's oath of office.

"It appears that you have no respect for the court or court reporters," Penick wrote.

Weiss, who is scheduled to return to Penick's court soon in a related matter, had little comment. "It just totally slipped my mind," Weiss said, "and as soon as he reminded me, I complied."

This week, Penick said his letter might have been too hasty. He heard Weiss initially didn't send the flowers because the court reporter told him not to.

If that was the case, Penick said, the judge will reimburse Weiss for the flowers.

Penick said Monday that he has penalized lawyers perhaps a dozen times for discourtesies toward court reporters. He said he doles out the same punishment to himself when he makes a mistake that makes their jobs difficult.

"It's just his way of reminding us. I guess it's in good fun," said James B. Thompson Jr., who was ordered to deliver a bouquet of flowers during a six-day trial last month. "There's any number of ways a judge can tell you what to do, and this is his way."

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