The forced withdrawal of Circuit Judge Kristi Harrington from reelection is a loss for our Bar, our state and the entire legal profession. The process that brought it about is even worse.
As a trial lawyer with a statewide practice, I have appeared before most of our state’s Circuit Court judges. Every courtroom is different, and so is every judge. That is why the first rule of advocating in court is to know your audience. Know your judges, and if you do not know their preferences, ask. Lawyers must adjust their tactics to the personality of each judge, not the other way around.
That’s why I was shocked by Jay Bender’s guest column, as it detailed four complaints from his single encounter with Judge Harrington:
1.) She admonished him for not holding the swinging doors.
2.) She admonished him for not asking to approach the bench.
3.) She admonished him for putting his briefcase on another individual’s desk.
4.) She did not like it when he talked over her.
The encounter should have taught him basic lessons not only in court but also in life.
First, respect the courtroom. That means holding the door so it does not cause a commotion. The knee-level doors in a Charleston County courtroom, separating the spectator area from the counselor’s tables, are spring loaded. If you’re not careful, they will crash back and forth as if you just dramatically entered a saloon in the Wild West. The courtroom is not a saloon and should not be treated as such.
Second, respect the bench. Unlike Mr. Bender, I have found it is common practice in South Carolina to ask to approach the bench. It’s understandable that judges who are often dealing with pro se (unrepresented) litigants accused of violent crimes might devise such a custom. This is not something they just do on television. I have never been admonished by a judge for extending this courtesy.
The last thing judges should worry about is protecting lawyers’ feelings.
Third, do not disrespect others. The two tables perpendicular to the bench in Charleston courtrooms are the desks of the professionals of court administration, the court reporter and the clerk. We lawyers have our own tables to put our briefcases on (or, more appropriately, under).
Fourth, do not ever, under any circumstances, talk over the judge or, for that matter, anyone else.
But for these “offenses” Mr. Bender, who has been practicing since 1975, finds that a judge who has been on the bench for nearly a decade was appropriately removed, ending his column by saying that the “process will never be free of politics, but in this instance, it worked.”
As attorneys, we believe in due process. Judge Harrington’s process was an all-male commission that badgered and forced her withdrawal for not being motherly enough to the professionals appearing before her. Courtroom advocacy is not hacky-sack. It is not hand-holding. The last thing judges should worry about is protecting lawyers’ feelings. They should only be concerned with presiding over a fair proceeding, remaining impartial and making decisions based on law.
Watch to see if a legislator or spouse of a legislator is picked to fill Judge Harrington’s seat.
Judge Harrington is a professional jurist who finds time to teach at the Charleston School of Law and act as the go-to for students to learn how a courtroom operates.
Judge Harrington demands respect in her courtroom and runs her proceedings efficiently. She is always educated on the issues before her and is prepared to hear your argument. She has ruled for my clients in some proceedings and against them in others. I certainly haven’t had anything close to a 100 percent batting average in her courtroom, but that is to be expected.
As someone who wakes up every day to fight for justice, I believe that Judge Harrington has suffered an injustice.
Legislators electing judges is a strange thing, and it seems to me that this situation is a very good argument against it. Watch to see if a legislator or spouse of a legislator is picked to fill Judge Harrington’s seat. That will tell you most of what you need to know about the politics of the process.
Mr. Willey is a Charleston trial lawyer; contact him at Roy@akimlawfirm.com.