Know the Rules
Ten Commandments for a Trial Judge

By Hon. Mark Milam and Hon. Will Babor

Commandment #1:  Thou shalt take thy time with decisions in court.
Haste makes waste, and it can sometimes make for bad rulings. Don’t rush. Often an extra moment or two – even the lunch break – is the difference between a right or wrong ruling.

Commandment #2:  Thou shalt control the courtroom.
A trial can be a highly emotional event. Keep the courtroom free from personal attacks and toxic personalities. Be the “adult in the room.”

Commandment #3:  Thou shalt be candid and demand candor.
Don’t tolerate lawyers who are anything less than honest and candid with the court and with the other side. Likewise, judges must be candid with counsel. A judge should never fudge.

Commandment #4:  Thou shalt keep the sanctity of the courtroom.
The courtroom is a place of honor, respect, dignity and precedent. Don’t allow it to be diminished by the antics of the parties, witnesses or those in the gallery.

Commandment #5:  Thou shalt continue to keep up with the law (and procedure).
Many times the parties look at us as if we were walking legal encyclopedias (or they think we should be). The truth is we are not. If we don’t have the law and trial procedure in our minds, we need it at our fingertips. This will not only make our jobs more enjoyable and less stressful, it will aid us in keeping control of the courtroom and avoid unnecessary reversals.

Commandment #6:  Thou shalt not procrastinate with rulings on written motions.
Rulings on motions of counsel are too easily put aside until the trial date gets closer. However, doing so risks delaying the trial and justice. The parties are often waiting on our decisions to formulate and solidify strategy or to take their next step in the litigation process.

Commandment #7:  Thou shalt not be worried about being overturned.
There are two types of judges: those who have been overturned on appeal and those who will be. At times it may feel like a personal attack, but generally it isn’t. Just as we expect trial lawyers to accept our decisions in court, we must do the same with those of our superior courts.

Commandment #8:  Thou shalt not take sides.
This should go without saying. One side or the other in a trial may repel or attract us due to the facts or the advocacy, but we must tamp down any potential favoritism. Staying neutral may result in jury verdicts we do not agree with, but as long as we are enforcing the procedural and evidentiary rules, the system has worked.

Commandment #9:  Thou shalt be very cautious of making new law.
Trial lawyers are good at presenting issues in such a way as to entice us to change the law, to go against the decisions of our superior courts. We must resist. There is good reason why the old adage of “hard cases make bad law” has survived. Precedent is the thread that holds our system of law together. Changing it should nearly always be left to the appellate courts.

Commandment #10: Thou shalt keep thy personal life in order.
It is common to “take” our work home with us and have it on our minds. We are no different than other professionals in wishing there were more hours in a day. However, we cannot use that excuse to neglect our responsibilities to our health and our loved ones.

Lt. Col. Will Babor
Lt. Col. Will Babor
Col. Mark Milam
Col. Mark Milam

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