Profanity in the courtroom

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How, if at all, should the offender be punished?

By Tom Gantert

Legal News

Jackson County 12th District Court Judge Darryl Mazur has seen people standing before him get angry and use profanity.

In fact, the judge said it happened in September.

''I just sent her back to the jail where she was being held in lieu of bond," Mazur said. "It comes with the territory."

Just how much authority a judge holds when profanity is used in the courtroom became a national issue last year when a South Carolina federal district judge put an attorney in jail for four months for used the "f" word in the courtroom.

What makes the case even more interesting is that the judge wasn't present when attorney Robert Peoples used the profanity.

According to Law.com, Peoples said the judge should "get the (expletive) off all my cases" after the judge dismissed Peoples' lawsuit. Peoples' filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals in the Fourth Circuit.

"The most I would do, if the comment were made directly to me, in open court, is cite for contempt," Mazur said.

Jackson Attorney George Lyons said as a general rule, a lawyer has the obligation to respect the court and its procedures and its jurisdiction. Still, Lyons said attorneys do occasionally use "colorful language" when they are not happy with a ruling.

"In most of the cases cited, the offensive language was done off the record and out of the court's earshot, in fact actually reported to the court by third party court personnel," Lyons said. "That would not seem to rise to contempt."

Lyons compared it to "just a blowing off of the steam in a direction other than the court."

Lyons questioned if the South Carolina's judge throwing the attorney in jail for four months was an overreaction.

"A judge has very broad discretion, particularly on the federal bench," Lyons said. "I'd just say that matter could probably been handled in a less draconian fashion."

Washtenaw County 15th District Court Judge Chris Easthope said courtroom contempt issues have to be dealt with on a case-to-case basis.

"A judge has to be in control of the courtroom," Easthope said. "It's one thing to obstruct a litigant's expression in either pursuing a case or defending against one. However, when the only expression of the litigant is one of anger and disgust toward the court, then contempt may be necessary, but it depends on the individual circumstances. Were there prior warnings from the court to stop a certain behavior, etc.?"

Using profanities in the courtroom has brought stiff penalties across the country.

A defendant in criminal sentencing used the "f" word when he said "(Expletive) y'all." According to the Wall Street Journal, the trial judge sentenced the defendant to an additional year of jail for the outburst. However, the Washington D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals reduced the sentence for contempt to six months. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals stated that any longer sentence would require a jury trial.

Published: Thu, Oct 11, 2012

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