Advice to Lawyers (Which Seems Surprisingly Necessary): Don’t Use Vulgarities in Court

From In re Foster (N.C. Ct. App. May 21, 2013) (nonprecedential):

The State’s evidence tended to show the following facts. On the evening of 5 November 2011, a Saturday, defendant entered the Buncombe County Detention Facility and went to an area designated by sign as a “Magistrate Court.” Defendant told the magistrate on duty that she was an attorney, was present on behalf of some Occupy Ashville protestors, and then asked, “‘What the hell is going on around here?’” The magistrate told defendant to “watch her language” and stated that, as an attorney, defendant should know not to curse in a courtroom.

Defendant proceeded to request a list of names of individuals for whom warrants had been issued in connection with a protest march. The magistrate declined to give defendant the names, but said she could check whether defendant had an active warrant. After defendant requested she do so, the magistrate told defendant that she did not have an active warrant. Defendant then stated: “‘What the fuck is going on around here?’” The magistrate again warned defendant not to curse in the courtroom and asked defendant to leave.

In response, defendant stated, “‘Oh, yeah, I said “fuck,” “This is fucking ridiculous,” and “This is fucking crazy.”‘” In total, defendant made approximately five statements containing the word “fuck.” After the third or fourth time defendant said “fuck,” the magistrate “informed her that [the magistrate] was going to hold her in contempt.” Defendant continued cursing and walked towards the door. Although the magistrate told defendant to stop and return because she had been held in contempt, defendant exited the office.

Foster’s contempt conviction was reversed on procedural grounds, but it’s pretty clear that the court viewed her conduct dimly:

We are, however, very troubled by defendant’s use of profanity in the magistrate’s office while conducting court-related business despite warnings by the magistrate about the inappropriate language. Such disrespect, particularly by an attorney familiar with proper courtroom practices, is wholly inappropriate.

And this is hardly surprising: Vulgarities, more than most words, communicate not so much a crisp meaning, but attitude and emotion — often anger, a refusal to cooperate, and a lack of respect. People in their ordinary lives as citizens have a right to express such emotions to government officials. But lawyers operating within a courtroom are supposed to be calm, able to cooperate as to many details of the process even if they act as adversaries with regard to other matters, and respectful to the other participants in the process, since such respect helps get the job done. Adopting the Angry Rebel Sneering At The Man persona might make one appealing in certain political circles, but it won’t make one an effective lawyer; whether or not such using vulgarities (not just quoting them, of course, but using them as one’s own words) will get a lawyer held in contempt of court, it won’t serve the clients’ interests.

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