The Judicial Ethics Forum (JEF)

An Academic Discussion of Judicial Ethics, Discipline & Disqualification

Pro se litigants

Posted by graycynthia on Wednesday, August, 19, 2009

In a recent judicial discipline decision, the Louisiana Supreme Court gave a persuasive description of the importance of respectful judicial demeanor in the courtroom, particularly in cases involving pro se litigants. In re Ellender (Louisiana Supreme Court July 1, 2009). Based on a statement of stipulated uncontested material facts and stipulated conclusions of law, the Court suspended a judge for 30 days without pay for his treatment of the petition at a hearing on a petition for protection from abuse for suggesting that the pleading alleging domestic abuse was inconsequential, suggesting approval of the infliction of severe corporal punishment on a child, and acknowledging he did not appropriately address the father’s statement about whipping his child.

Most of the current justices on the court have experience on the trial bench so they understand the challenges faced by trial court judges.

Judges are called upon to render difficult decisions in sensitive and emotional matters. . . . Often a judge’s patience is tested when simultaneously confronted with crowded dockets to be managed and countless difficult decisions to be made. Litigants occasionally lash out at the judge if their side does not prevail, inappropriately casting aspersions on the judge. . . .

In donning the judicial robe, judges are not suddenly cloaked with faultlessness. Thus, judges cannot be subjected to discipline merely because someone mistakes decisiveness, forcefulness, or sternness for a lack of patience, dignity, or courtesy.

However, the justices were also able to empathize with those on the other side of the bench.

Being in court is a common occurrence for judges, but for litigants, especially pro se litigants, a courtroom appearance can be an immensely difficult experience. Litigants appear before judges to have their disputes resolved. Judges serve the public, in part, by setting an example in how to resolve these disputes in a patient, dignified, and courteous manner. If a judge acts belligerently, those before the judge believe belligerence is acceptable. Judges have an opportunity to teach by example and demonstrate those attributes which all should strive to possess.

* * * The lack of patience exhibited in this matter prevented a full consideration of the legitimacy of the allegations in the pleading, especially considering some of the complaints in the pleading were not addressed before the matter was summarily dismissed. There was a potential risk of serious harm stemming from this judicial misconduct in that the complainant was seeking protective relief from threatened violence in a domestic matter. Mrs. Warren appeared before Judge Ellender, unrepresented by counsel, asking the court for protection based on allegations of domestic abuse. The record is clear that Judge Ellender not only failed to treat this matter seriously, but he also acted in a condescending and demeaning manner toward Mrs. Warren and treated her with a lack of patience. While such behavior should not be tolerated with respect to any litigant, or attorney, the impact on domestic abuse litigants, and others who allege a need for the court’s protection, can be devastating.

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