Civility & Decorum: a courtroom scene.

And….action!

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve blogged or spoken on civility.  I’m sure many are tired of it.

However, I’m equally certain that Vermont’s judges have supported my efforts.  The judge to whom I owe the most thanks for supporting me on this front often uses a saying that captures the heart of my message far more succinctly than I:

“You are free to disagree.  You are not free to be disagreeable.”

Today’s post honors that judge.

The story comes via AL.com and the ABA Journal.  Respectively, the headlines are:

  • “Judge told Alabama defendant ‘I’ll bust your ass’ complaint alleges.”
  • “Judge is accused of threatening to bust butt of traffic defendant, claiming she likes to ‘flim-flam’ people.

Cutting to the chase: the conduct complaint filed against the judge by Alabama’s Judicial Conduct Commission is here.

From the headlines, and the fact that the judge has been charged, I suspect you’ve already reached the same conclusion as I: it is unlikely history will reflect as kindly on this Alabama courtroom scene as it does on those in To Kill a Mockingbird and My Cousin Vinny.

Here’s what happened.

In 2018, Kimberly Farranto’s car was hit while parked at the restaurant where she worked.  The driver fled, but Farranto was able to determine from a credit card receipt that a passenger’s last name was “Price.” She was not able to determine who was driving.

Flash forward to February 2020.

Farranto appeared in court on a charge of driving with a suspended license.  Waiting for her case to be called, she noticed that the judge’s last name was “Price.” Apparently using her cell phone to investigate, she learned that the judge was likely the father of the passenger in the car that hit hers. Once her case was called, Farranto asked the judge if the passenger was his son.  When the judge answered “yes,” Farranto asked the judge to recuse himself.  When asked why, Farranto told the story and explained that she might sue the judge’s son to provide the name of the driver.

In the end, the judge recused himself.  It’s the colloquy along the way that is relevant to this post.  For a full description, read paragraphs 13-24 of the conduct complaint.  Among other things, the complaint alleges:

  • “Judge Price interrupted Ms. Farranto and was very very angry. He screamed at her that, if she went after his son, he would ‘sue her ass.’”

Then,

  • “Continuing in a loud voice, Judge Price responded ‘Oh yeah, I know who you are. You’re the lady who likes to flim-flam people.’”[i]

Later, after being told that Farranto might sue his son:

  • “Judge Price yelled at her threateningly. ‘If you sue my son, I will bust your ass.’ Judge Price’s face was very red.”

As, the “discussion” continued:

  • “Judge Price yelled at Ms. Farranto, ‘You’re a G*d D**n liar.”

It went on from there, with more of the same. Eventually, the judge gave Farranto both the driver’s name and a new court date with a different judge.

I am not aware of a Vermont judge ever reacting like this.  Still, lawyers, let’s use it as a teachable moment.  If this were to happen to you, how should you respond?

The answer: exactly as Ms. Farranto did.

Rule 3.5(d) of the Vermont Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits discourteous conduct that is degrading or disruptive to a tribunal.  A comment to the rule states that “[a] lawyer may stand firm against abuse by a judge but should avoid reciprocation; the judge’s default is no justification for similar dereliction by an advocate.”

According to the conduct complaint, “[throughout the entire exchange . . . Ms. Farranto did not get upset, raise her voice, or act rudely.”  In other words, it appears that Farranto stood firm without reciprocation or similar dereliction. That is, while she disagreed with the judge’s behavior, Ms. Farranto was not disagreeable in response.

Nor am I aware of any matter in which a Vermont judge presided over a hearing at which a litigant indicated an intent to sue the judge’s child.  Judges, if that happens, here’s a primer on judicial recusal.  I suggest the ABA approach instead of Judge Price’s.  Again, the maxim matters: when it comes to recusal, you may disagree with the request, but you should not be disagreeable in response.

Which brings me to my favorite line in this unfortunate episode.

After Ms. Farranto left the courtroom, Judge Price said to the Chief Magistrate, “Ms. Roberts, I think I might have lost my cool.”

The Chief Magistrate replied, “You think?”

And Scene GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

[i] Until reading this, I did not know what “flim-flam” meant or that it could be a verb.  Per Dictionary.com, when used with an object, “flim-flam” means “to trick, deceive, swindle or cheat.”

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