Judicial Civility

This letter to the editor originally appeared in The Florida Bar News.

Much has been written of late about the need for greater civility between lawyers and the programs intended to promote professionalism and mutual respect in their relations, such as the South Florida Civility Project. Not mentioned quite as often is the judiciary’s role in the decline of these standards, either in failing to enforce them or to abide by them in their own interactions with attorneys.

Notable for its view that judges should “serve as the principal example of courtesy, restraint, and tolerance” is the article “Civility Counts” by a 15th Circuit judge. The article lists principles adopted by the American Board of Trial Advocates, which a lawyer is entitled to expect judges to observe, including that the judge “[b]e considerate of time schedules of lawyers, parties, and witnesses in setting dates for hearings, meetings, and conferences” and “avoid scheduling matters for a time that conflicts with counsel’s required appearance before another judge.” This, of course, merely recognizes that judges ought to observe the same courtesies that have long been required of lawyers, although perhaps honored more in the breach (e.g., Guidelines for Professionalism and the Ideals and Goals of Professionalism adopted by the Board of Governors).

Yet, in our state’s foreclosure cases, the judiciary routinely sets hearings without considering the schedules of lawyers and their clients, orders trial dates without calendar calls, and ignores known conflicts. And while the requirement that hearings be coordinated was certainly meant to grease the wheels of judicial efficiency, it also arises from fundamental notions of civility — a respect and empathy for an attorney’s time commitments.

Even more importantly, the requirement is underpinned by an ideal at the core of our profession: Due process. Clients represented by underprepared or absent attorneys do not receive this basic constitutional right.

Moreover, this brand of incivility not only favors the affluent of our society who can afford a “deep bench” of attorneys to ensure availability, but it discourages practitioners from representing the economically disadvantaged.

The Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice should take measures to address this trend that is undermining its goals.

Thomas E. Ice