Who hasn’t heard someone say, “I just want my day in court!”. Keeping that in mind, every day, when I am seated at the bench, I’m reminded that my responsibilities start with the principle that I must sit down and listen. Words that most of us first heard at a young and tender age. In fact, I bet most of us first heard those words from one or both of our parents or caregivers and then again as life went on, from a teacher, a relationship partner, our kids and/or a boss. While these words are very elementary in nature, they are the very foundation of successfully hearing and deciding all cases that come before the court. Before most judges even take the bench, they must not only become masters of oration and argument, but more importantly of listening. Judges learn early in their prior career as advocates that cases are won and lost on what they may or may not have heard.
Once on the bench and noting that cases to be decided will turn on what is and/or what is not heard, the need to listen becomes of even more of a paramount concern. What a responsibility judges have to simply listen. Judges must listen to testimony of the litigants, and their witnesses, being careful to hear and evaluate what is said during all phases of testimony taken on direct, cross, re-direct, re-cross and rebuttal. Being sure to listen for what is said in new statements, subsequent statements and statements that corroborate and/or conflict prior statements. Often times and more importantly, judges must also listen for what is not said, watching carefully for testimony received through body language and demeanor. Finally, judges must also listen for what may or may not be contained in documentary and demonstrative evidence.
In addition to the evidence provided by and through the litigants, judges must also listen for what is being said by the attorneys, keeping an open mind and ear when they present case law or argue their position on a case. While listening, judges must be sure to carefully distinguish testimony from directive and persuasive arguments made during opening statements and closing arguments, noting that this information is not evidence to be considered when the time comes for reaching a decision. In addition and during the actual trial, judges must listen out for objections from counsel to ensure a fairly conducted trial for all parties. Effective listening allows the judge to evaluate the statement made or piece of evidence objected to in order to render a fair and impartial responsive ruling, either sustaining or overruling the pending objection.
On any given day, judges are required to listen to cases that last from 15 minutes to upwards of a month or more with of course, lunch and end of the day breaks. As you can see, listening is a key element in the courtroom. Judges, while listening and collecting a wealth of information during a case are simultaneously evaluating a wealth of information received over long intermittent periods of time. Of course, at the close of all of the evidence, judges must then review what they’ve heard and consolidate the information received from witnesses, documents and other items into one cohesive set of evidence. Thereafter, all of that information must then be considered along with the applicable statutes, codes and rules. With that, the judge then renders an ultimate decision.
It’s clear that listening is a critical component of all litigation. Not only does it allow the judge to make the best decision that he/she can make, but it assures the parties and their counsel that they have not only had an opportunity to be heard, but that they were actually heard. As an attorney, I heard over and over again, that litigants just want their fair day in court and for judges to simply pay attention, listen and hear their version of events. Now that I’m on the bench, that is my promise to all those who come before me. To give everyone my full time and attention and to listen to whatever is of utmost importance to those litigants. An invaluable principle that I’ve carried with me from kindergarten to the bench. With that, rest assured that whenever I’m seated on the bench, I will sit down and listen.
Judge ShaRon M. Grayson Kelsey