Local circuit judges came together on Sept. 29 to discuss a judicial perspective of ethical pitfalls at the Illinois Association of Defense Trial Council's Perspectives, Predictions & Pointers seminar held at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
Madison County Circuit Judge William Mudge, St. Clair County Circuit Judge Vincent Lopinot and St. Louis Circuit Judge Steven Ohmer shared personal stories and provided tips to attorneys present at the IDC's conference on how to conduct themselves in the courtroom.
Civility Dos and Don’ts
Lopinot said it’s simple. Parties should be respectful and should attempt to discuss and work things out.
“I don’t really have many problems with civility. The problems come with certain attorneys who routinely can’t agree on anything,” he said. “They can’t even agree on the time of day.”
Ohmer agreed and said nothing is more frustrating than when lawyers won’t talk to one another.
He said a lawyer’s reputation is everything and once it is lost, it is difficult to get back.
Mudge added that inappropriate court conduct detracts from professionalism and puts judges in a difficult position.
Judicial Handling of Improper Contacts in Trial
Mudge was the only judge who actually appreciated the ease of communicating with parties via email.
Ohmer called email communication a “waste of time” and said he has trouble making sure all parties are kept in the loop.
Lopinot agreed, saying he sometimes gets caught up in email arguments between attorneys.
While Mudge doesn’t mind corresponding with email, he said he has had to instruct parties to leave him out when an argument erupts.
“I don’t mind talking about scheduling, but when it gets into arguing, I don’t want to be involved,” he said.
Judicial Handling of Special Problems with Pro Se Litigations in Trial
All three judges agreed that pro se litigants are difficult to navigate around, but they do their best to accommodate them.
They have certain rules in place when dealing with pro se litigants to prevent them from suspecting the attorneys and judges are working together.
“It avoids the appearance that the deck is stacked against them,” Mudge said.
Mudge explained that he tries to prevent attorneys from entering his chambers when a pro se litigant is involved. He also makes sure both parties approach the bench.
“Do not approach the bench without the pro se litigant. I guarantee they think you are conspiring against them.”
Ohmer called the situation “delicate” and agreed that all pro se matters should be handled on the bench with all parties present.
He said attorneys sometimes feel like pro se litigants receive special treatment, but Ohmer explained that they need help understanding what is required of them to litigate their claims.
“It’s tedious, but it levels the playing field,” he said.
Judicial Handling of Social Medial Issues in Trial
Ohmer said younger jurors look at social media differently and have to be reminded that discussing the case on social media platforms is no different than talking about it face-to-face with something, which is forbidden.
Mudge added that while measures have to be taken when dealing with the jury and social media, attorneys also have to be careful how they use social media.
In Madison County, attorneys are provided a list of the potential jurors a week before trial. Oftentimes, attorneys will monitor prospective jurors online to get an idea of who they will be screening.
However, Lopinot said attorneys cannot send friend requests or messages to potential jurors or do anything that would “send a message to prospective jurors that they are being watched.”