by Judge Dennis Challeen
When we won our war for independence from England our history was loaded with European royal court titles such as king, queen, prince, princess, duke, duchess, lord, lady, etc. We upstart Americans had our fill of nobility, hereditary titles based upon who our ancestors were, not elected or earned in one’s own right. Thus our Constitution clearly states: “No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States,” Art. I, Sec. 9.
However, right from the get-go, there was controversy as to what we would call the president of the United States. Some senators proposed “His Elected Majesty,” “His Mightiness,” “His Exalted Highness,” and “Protector of Liberties.” Fortunately, George Washington selected “Mr. President” and it has remained so ever since.
There were some holdovers from our British past. The judges in America continued to wear robes, but those old English powdered gray wigs took a hike. Besides looking silly, they were unbearable in stifling warm courtrooms before air conditioning was even thought about.
Qualifications for being a judge or lawyer were simplified by our states, because there weren’t enough lawyers or law schools to go around, particularly in rural areas and on the new frontiers.
There is still some pomp and wordy formality in opening court sessions that we inherited from Britain — for example, the United States Supreme Court has a Marshall who sounds a gavel and loudly calls for all to rise and remain standing as the justices file in. He then announces the following traditional chant: “The Honorable, the Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court!” (The term “Oyez” means “Hear ye,” a call for silence and attention, originated in Medieval England.)
Over the centuries a few of our English formalities have trickled down to our local courthouses. Depending on the judge, court opening announcements are usually simple: “Everyone please rise! The District Court of Winona County, Minn., is now open [name of judge] presiding. Be seated.” It’s not meant to pay homage to the presiding judge, but the audience is asked to rise in respect for the law. (Note “Oyez” is left to the Middle Ages, and “God save the Queen” never made it to America).
However, the overused words “Your Honor” have been around since 1551 and actually can apply to almost everyone in government, e.g., members of Congress, governors, legislators, mayors, etc.
Because of TV and movies, the term seems to be vastly overused in court. We judges hear it so often it sometimes becomes annoying. It seems in small claims court where private people plead their own cases, they relish the chance to play amateur lawyer and almost every other word is “Your Honor.” Because they watch too many fictional TV trials, they also begin to wander around the courtroom, including walking up to question witnesses, which is not allowed in Minnesota. Lawyers remain at counsel tables.
For some people, speaking in court is a horrible nightmare. I remember one poor woman who was so frightened she addressed me as “Your Holiness.” I laughed and said, “Thank you, I’m flattered — but you’re in the wrong church and pew.”
Our Minnesota Supreme Court has ordered court decorum that requires lawyers to wear a suit coat and tie; (the court wisely doesn’t tell women lawyers what to wear other than “appropriate”). Judges must wear a robe and tie; however, the court is silent about color. So I had a normal black robe, plus a red-trimmed Provincial robe presented to me in Canada; and a blue denim one complete with brass rivets. An Irish judge I know wore a green robe.
One day I took a vacation day off and went out on the river. I received a call that I was needed for an emergency mental illness hearing; so I hurried to my chambers dressed in an old work shirt, blue jean shorts, and bare feet with sandals. I put on a tie and an all-covering robe and tried to appear presentable. Unknown to me an elderly lady wanted to talk to a judge so a clerk had her sit in my chambers until the hearing was over. I came off the bench not seeing nor expecting anyone, discarded my robe, and the poor woman gasped at seeing my hairy legs, bare feet, sandals and grubby attire. Embarrassed, I explained the circumstances; she then giggled — but I’m sure her image of what a judge should look like was forever damaged.