The Florida Bar

Florida Bar Journal

Civics, Law and Justice — How We Became U.S.

by Judge J. Layne Smith Book Reviews

Judge Smith’s book, which relies on his syndicated newspaper column, is an interesting and easily understood overview of our legal system as well as how the system works when a person becomes involved in it. His experience as a county judge, where many of the parties in civil actions represent themselves, serves as his background for explaining government and the courts.

Creatively titled chapters address important and weighty subjects, such as what it’s like to serve on a jury and how most trials are conducted. People who are trying to represent themselves in court and people interested in the litigation process will understand and benefit from reading this book, which may also be something clients in a lawyer’s waiting room would find interesting.

Some of the shorter chapters clearly explain a specific topic. “Two-Sided Pancakes” addresses why the plaintiff or prosecutor goes first, the general order of the trial, and whether it is fair to defendants. Another chapter explains why lawyers and judges have conferences outside the jury’s hearing and provides good examples of each situation, ranging from evidentiary objections to scheduling issues.

Other topics include whether a criminal defendant can or should defend themselves, concluding with Abe Lincoln’s logic that “a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.” Questions about why a witness often must sit out in the hallway before they are called are answered. A chapter titled, “I Say, You Say, Earl Say, Hearsay,” explains why hearsay is usually inadmissible and gives a few clearly explained examples of testimony that is admissible under a hearsay exception.

The workings of the courts, the law, and the American system of government are often a mystery to the everyday public. However, Judge Smith uses his experience to identify parts of the legal system most often misunderstood, and he has a talent for using examples that will capture the reader’s interest while teaching them an easy-to-comprehend lesson. In this work, he is admirably up to that task.

Judge Smith’s book is available for purchase from Amazon in print and as an e-book. It is available for purchase as an audiobook from over 40 retailers.


Charles W. Ehrhardt is a member of The Florida Bar.