By David J. Hardy // Attorney
On stage and screen, the courtroom is a common setting. It naturally allows for the presentation of high drama, as adversaries face each other under high ceilings surrounded by wood paneling, with the certainty of a verdict at the conclusion of the proceedings. Life, death, fortune, and fame all revolve around what happens. From Atticus Finch and Perry Mason to the contemporary cases on Law & Order, courtrooms provide stories that must be told.
As most people’s experience with court involves fictional drama, the prospect of actually having to appear in court and before an actual judge can be stressful. And certainly, court appearances should not be treated lightly. This is especially true for adoptive parents, who are asking the judge to create a legal parent-child relationship. To do so, a judge must conclude that the adoption is in the best interests of the child. Parents wonder whether something they say or do might prevent them from building a family.
Despite the potential for drama, most court proceedings are routine. A key for adoptive parents, who generally need to appear in court at least once, is to know what to expect and how to behave. Here are some guidelines:
Prepare in Advance. Parents should know before they step into the courtroom what is happening and what to expect. They generally do so by meeting with the attorney handling the case. Such a meeting may take place several days or weeks before a hearing ,or may take place just before proceedings start. The attorney generally will have a good idea of what may occur and the process of how the courts operate, even if they do not know how the court will rule on a matter. Adoptive parents are well-served by an attorney who guides them through the process.
Be on Time. In fact, be early. Judges generally have a heavy caseload and schedule matters throughout the day, giving each matter the time they believe it will need but no more, so other matters may be heard. If the parties are not present at the appointed time, the judge’s calendar can be thrown off, making the process difficult not only for those arriving late but also for those involved in subsequent cases. This has led to some judges encouraging punctuality by fining attorneys and parties who are late. It is important to be present when it is time for a matter to be heard.
Dress Appropriately. How a party is dressed in court communicates respect (or a lack thereof) for the court. Adoptive parents should seek to show their respect and dress as if they were attending a religious service. For men, ties and jackets are encouraged. For women, skirts and dresses are appropriate, although nice slacks are also acceptable. Shorts, t-shirts, tank tops, baseball caps, revealing clothing of any nature, and sandals do not belong in court.
Show Respect to the Judge and Staff. Behavior in court should demonstrate respect for the judge and setting. The judge should always be referred to as “Your Honor.” Phones should be turned off before entering and should not be used. Parties and witnesses should speak only when asked a question or recognized by the court. In speaking, parties should speak loudly enough to be heard but should maintain a respectful tone. Attorneys may raise issues with the judge, but parties should generally rely on their attorneys rather than seeking to do so themselves. Everybody should treat clerks and bailiffs as the judge’s representatives. Profanity is inappropriate, as are uncontrolled expressions of emotion. If a party wants to take pictures, approach the judge, or do anything unusual, they should first ask permission.
Answer Questions Directly. Persons responding to questions in court should do so directly. There is no need to explain every answer. If a “yes” or “no” suffices, it should be used. The answers “I do not know” and “I do not recall” are acceptable. The court and attorneys will ask follow-up questions if required. If a question is not clear, the person responding should ask for clarification.
Rely on an Attorney. Attorneys are generally familiar with court proceedings and know when to speak and what to say. When things go poorly, they can explain why and present alternatives for further action. Questions should usually be directed to one’s attorney, not the judge.