As I hang up my two-decade litigation career at the Texas Attorney General’s Office, it seems fitting that I depart with some words of wisdom, acquired along the trail of courthouses across the state. I’m sure my junior colleagues would have asked for some Yoda-style pronouncement, but in all the hoopla of my leaving, I’m sure they just forgot. Not to worry, I will record some deep thoughts for them here.
Now, Grasshoppers, all of you are highly trained professionals, but this training has probably not prepared you for the issue of where to sit in the courtroom. That’s not a problem, you might respond, because courtrooms are configured just like those we’ve seen on television and at the movies. In other words, the judge sits in front at a raised desk, called the bench, with a witness seat to the side, and perpendicularly situated, there is usually an enclosed area for the jury, i.e., the jury box. Finally, two rectangular tables, a few feet apart, are aligned in front of the judge where the opposing attorneys park themselves along with their notes, books, and files. We’ve all seen My Cousin, Vinny, right?
And the fact is that most court rooms around Texas, thank goodness, conform to this plan. Some date back to the 1800s and feature soaring ceilings and columns. Others are modern with lowered ceilings, built-in projection screens, and teak paneling, but even then, rectangular counsel tables are placed, as tradition dictates, in front of the judge from where the attorneys address the court (standing) and question witnesses (sitting). But, let me warn you, my friends, one day you will encounter CCC, the “Confounding Courtroom Circle.”
My first experience with CCC was in a courtroom in the Ellis County courthouse, oft-photographed and considered by many to be one of the grandest in the Southwest. Pleasantly pre-disposed to historic buildings, I entered Judge Gene Knize’s courtroom expecting to take an appreciative, but brief, gander at the craftsmanship of yore before I sat down and began gathering my thoughts regarding my case. Instead, I was confronted with the confusing sight of two round tables at least 6 to 7 feet in diameter placed in front of the judicial bench. Where were the rectangular counsel tables that I had known and learned to love? Had we driven to Waxahachie, Texas, only to be sent to a more distant past – King Arthur’s court? If so, why two? Maybe the courtroom doubled as a venue for dinner parties? Forget cards — I couldn’t imagine poker-playing at tables so large.
So, instead of marshaling my thoughts in support of my excellent motion for judicial consideration, I had to figure out the seating. If I wanted to face the judge in a normal fashion, I’d be at the back part of the table, a seemingly excessive distance from the bench and, depending on where the opposing attorney sat at the other table, I might be sitting 6 feet behind him. I couldn’t sit on the front side of the table with my back to the judge for obvious reasons including whiplash. So the only option was to sit on one side of the table with my chair and body skewed toward the front. That left my legs exposed to the Judge’s gaze, which was very disconcerting since I wore skirts to court in those days. I couldn’t help but wonder whether that was by design, i.e., was he a “leg man?”
And where would my co-counsel sit? He would either be on the side with me, in a way that obstructed the view of the judge for one of us, or sitting on the other side of the table making it difficult for us to consult during the proceeding. Nothing in law school had prepared me for a courtroom like this. Suffice it to say, Judge Knize got his leg shot.
In another variation of CCC, Cameron County has made entire courtrooms of the orbicular persuasion. Other design features seem borrowed from a science fiction/starship movie set – windowless with weird lighting effects, darker in the audience area and brighter in the “action” areas. While the judge and witness box are situated at the top of the circle, attorneys sit at long semi-circular tables set up along the bottom third of the circle, so that opposing attorneys end up sitting on either sides of the room from one another. If you like to see the whites of your opposing counsel’s eyes, forget about it. You can’t even discern their tie patterns. To consult or pass copies of documents, an attorney must trek over to the other side. And instead of presenting your motion or case from counsel table, a podium for addressing the judge is placed in the middle of the circle, reminiscent of a gladiator in front of the tiger — an apt metaphor for what happens to Austin attorneys in that neck of the woods. In terms of logistics, my young colleagues, think about what you’ll need in advance and carry it with you to the podium . . . take it from me, sprinting back and forth between counsel table and that podium is a bit awkward.
My most embarrassing CCC encounter, however, took place in Nueces County. The courtroom was a beehive of activity upon my arrival with my land surveyor witness and client representative in tow. I had little time to look around and orient myself before our case was announced. Proceeding through the gate, I went directly to an available table surface where I plopped down my briefcase, which I unloaded, observing — but not thinking too much about it — that it was rather narrow. Nevertheless, it was nice and long so I could easily unfurl the large maps I had brought. It seemed perfectly natural that I was seated almost directly in front of the judge and fairly close to the witness box where my witness would answer my questions and identify the maps and documents I was prepared to introduce into evidence. If we were sitting on a clock face, the judge was at 12:00, I was at 6:00 and the witness box was at 3:00. My opposing counsel was sitting about 10:00.
Upon completion of the hearing, I packed up my briefcase, noticing again the narrowness of the table I had been using. As we departed the court room, the client rep (who had observed from the audience section) asked me, “Just out of curiosity, Jeffee, did you know you were sitting in the jury box?” I looked back and it was only then that I realized that this was a newfangled courtroom that did not have a boxed structure to enclose the jury. Instead, the jury sits in a semicircle of wheeled chairs that are placed around a curved divider – about a foot to 18 inches wide – which I had assumed was semi-circular table surface. I had sat at the end of that structure where juror number 12 or 1 would sit. The counsel table where I should have sat was a regular rectangular table, next to the table opposing counsel had been using . . . about 9:00 on the clock face.
I just looked at him and with as much aplomb as I could muster said, “Yes, of course. It was more convenient than the counsel table.” But during the entire four-hour drive back to Austin, all I could think about was that roomful of people wondering why the State’s attorney was sitting in the jury box!
So, as I look back on my career in litigation, I gladly bid adieu to the CCC, and leave that to you, Grasshoppers, to master. I can only surmise that it will get worse if interior designers with this obvious aversion to lawyers get their way. I would only point out that the legal world is about drawing lines . . . the line from prior cases to a current set of facts, the line between right and wrong, the line between your opponent’s version of the facts and the actual truth. Lines, lines, lines. If tall spires make people think in a more spiritual direction, how will these circles influence legal thinking?
It is my hope that this circular design will not imperil our legal system, but time will tell. My last exercise in line-drawing occurred on May 31, 2013, when I drew the line between my employment as a state worker and my engagement as a state citizen. As I end one stage and begin another in life’s cycle, I can assure you, it’s been an honor to represent the State of Texas . . . in rectangles, squares, and even those confounding circles!