What to Expect When You’re Expected in Court Part II: Who Are These People?

March 25, 2019
Laura E. McGarry

This is part two of a three-part series about courtroom procedure and etiquette. Part one of this series was How Do I Get There?

In my previous post, I walked through what a litigant or witness can expect from the time they enter the courthouse to when they enter the courtroom. In this second installment of the series, I will discuss who you can expect to see in a courtroom and what their role is.

When you are in a courtroom, the star of the show is the judge. The judge sits at the “bench,” which is typically located on an elevated platform in the front, center of the courtroom. The judge presides over the hearing, rules on objections, instructs jurors and is responsible for how things are done in the courtroom. Each judge has different requirements and expectations for parties, their attorneys, witnesses and observers. For example, some judges require attorneys to stand up any time they speak, while other judges permit attorneys to remain seated. Some judges allow jurors to take notes, while others do not. Your attorney can clue you in to what the particular judge you are appearing before prefers.

Somewhere near the judge and the witness box will be the court reporter. His or her job is to take down everything everyone says in the courtroom. Because of that, it is important to remember some key things to make the court reporter’s job as easy as possible. First, it is important to speak clearly, loudly and at a reasonable pace. While court reporters can take down a tremendous amount of words per minute, there is a limit. In addition, it is nearly impossible for the court reporter to preserve an accurate record if she cannot hear you or if you respond inaudibly. In other words, keep your voice up and refrain from responding with shrugs, “mm hmm,” “uh huh,” etc. Second, the court reporter can only take down what one person is saying at a time. It is important that you wait until others are finished speaking before you respond.

If you are participating in a jury trial, the jurors will also be present in the courtroom. Jurors are treated with a great deal of respect and reverence, as they should be. They are tasked with the difficult job of hearing testimony and applying the law to the facts. Their decisions have significant impacts on the parties. It is important to remember that jurors must remain impartial. If you see jurors around the courthouse or in town during your lunch or evening breaks, do not talk to them. You do not want to create even the appearance of impropriety. They will not be offended as they will have been similarly instructed to ignore you by the judge.

In many courtrooms, judges are assisted by bailiffs, which sometimes go by other names, such as tipstaff like in York County. Bailiffs are responsible for assisting the judge with maintaining courtroom organization. They will typically confirm when all parties have arrived and coordinate the jurors’ presence in the courtroom.

Sheriff’s deputies are present in most, if not all, courtrooms. They are tasked with ensuring the safety of all those present in the courtroom and courthouse.

You may also notice additional court personnel such as the judge’s law clerk or staff from various court offices such as the Prothonotary, Orphan’s Court or Clerk of Court, depending on the type of hearing. They are typically present in the courtroom to assist the judge and ensure that court procedures are being followed.

It is important to remember that any court personnel present in the courtroom are observing how you act and may, very well, report any concerns to the judge. While this is good advice generally, it’s particularly important in a courthouse to treat everyone you meet with respect and courtesy.

Now that you can identify the players, in my next post I will discuss how to best present yourself in court from what you wear to what you say.

Laura McGarry is an attorney at Russell, Krafft and Gruber, LLP in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She received her law degree from Penn State Law and provides legal counsel to individuals and businesses in Lancaster and surrounding communities.