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Order in the court? Decorum determined by each judge

Published August 27, 2006

DADE CITY - A judge, by definition, is the personification of an entire branch of government, an impartial authority impervious to outside influences and emotional whims.

Lawyers, also by definition, are expected to show reverence, addressing the robed figures as "Your honor" all the while fighting hard for their clients.

Around a crowded conference table last week during a hearing in Circuit Judge Linda Babb's chambers, the rules softened, at least briefly.

"I don't mean to be rude," Public Defender Tom Hanlon told Babb, "but when you're trying to kill this kid ..."

"I'm not trying to kill anyone," Babb said calmly.

Asked later, the judge said she understood the emotions behind Hanlon's words and didn't take them personally.

"There is a line that somebody can cross, but Mr. Hanlon hasn't crossed it," she said. "I want people to be vociferously advocating for their clients and that's what he's doing."

* * *

The exchanges between lawyers and judges typically follow a staid script of legal terminology and overly formal addresses. The characters occasionally tangle, but seldom does the tenor reach the heights of television courtroom drama.

Every judge is different, and the rules of courtroom decorum boil down to a medley of tradition, respect for the institution, individual quirks and personalities, and simple good manners.

In the hearing before Babb, Hanlon was defending a man facing the death penalty if convicted of killing a law enforcement officer. The lawyer wanted more time to prepare for trial.

As she has before, Babb said no. The trial of Alfredie Steele Jr. should be ready for its scheduled start of Nov. 13.

Despite Hanlon's tart words, Babb took no formal action, such as finding him in contempt, and gave him no verbal reprimand. He left, and the hearing moved on to other cases.

Days later, he was unapologetic.

"I've asked, she's denied. We'll move on," he said.

* * *

While Judge Susan Schaeffer presided from the bench in Pinellas County over countless trials and hearings, her courtroom had an unspoken rule.

"Lawyers just knew: don't mess with Schaeffer," the retired judge said. "And the reason probably is because they never knew what I'd do."

Schaeffer, who retired in 2004 after 22 years as a judge, six as chief of the 6th Circuit, said Hanlon's words would have drawn a harsher response from her.

"To say that out loud to a judge in court quite frankly is inappropriate," Schaeffer said. "Without question, it's inappropriate."

But even the formidable Schaeffer, in all her time on the bench, never found a lawyer in contempt - an offense that can carry fines and jail time. And when she taught a course in contempt to new judges, she discouraged them from it, too.

"Once you start going into contempt, you're there and you can't really back out gracefully," Schaeffer said.

J. Larry Hart, a criminal defense and personal injury attorney in New Port Richey, has seen lawyers lose their cool and has defended some facing contempt proceedings.

"Generally speaking, all behavior that would be considered to be uncivil in nature is really to be avoided," Hart said. "However, I think from a practical standpoint one has to recognize that even attorneys are human."

At no time is that more evident, perhaps, than when clients are on trial for their lives.

In a taped confession, Steele admitted killing Pasco sheriff's Lt. Charles "Bo" Harrison on June 1, 2003, outside the Trilacoochee nightclub Rumors. Hanlon, who feels a fondness for the 22-year-old Steele, isn't convinced his client did it.

"They don't have anything to tie him into it other than his mouth," he said.

The case continues to draw a lot of attention, both in the media and in the form of decals affixed to the back of every deputy's cruiser in the county with the words "In loving memory" of Harrison.

The factors add to the lawyer's sense of obligation.

"One of the concerns about the death penalty (is) that the stakes are so high, defense attorneys pull out all the stops," said Christopher Slobogin, professor of criminal law at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. "So there's a real tension between the defense attorney's desire to explore every avenue and the court's desire to get an efficient resolution of the case."

As a judge, Schaeffer said those cases call for greater tolerance.

"You give them the benefit of the doubt," she said. "They feel the pressure of the case. They really feel the person's life is in their hands. That's an awesome responsibility."

Of Steele, Hanlon sums up his sense of responsibility this way: "People pick up tin cans on the side of the road because they say they have value. They're trying to tell me this kid has no value. They want to throw him away."

* * *

The Steele case is now three years old. Babb says unless there's a deadline, it won't ever go to trial. Prosecutors say they're ready to go.

In the hearing last week, Hanlon also gave something of a warning.

"Just for the record, I'm not going to be ready," he said.

Setting up the record for a possible appeal is an appropriate tack for lawyers to take, Schaeffer said. A better one than attacking the judge.

"You have to play by the rules," she said. "That doesn't mean that you can't just go right to the line. But you can't cross it."

[Last modified August 27, 2006, 07:11:37]

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