New video series examines the judge’s role in addressing unprofessionalism
Henry Latimer Center for Professionalism's on-demand video CLE 'your Honor' is a 'brutally honest' look at the problems that exist and how best to address them
“If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem,” retired First Circuit Judge Ross Goodman said when asked if judges have a responsibility to confront unprofessional and uncivil behavior in their courtrooms.
The answer came as part of a new free and on-demand video CLE series produced by The Florida Bar’s Henry Latimer Center for Professionalism, “your Honor,” hosted by Paul Lipton, a veteran of Florida’s professionalism movement.
Rebecca Bandy, director of the Henry Latimer Center for Professionalism describes “your Honor” as a “provocative series featuring some of the most respected and celebrated lawyers and judges in the state candidly talking about professionalism and how to address unprofessional and uncivil behavior.” The first two episodes feature Lipton interviewing Senior U.S. Southern District Judge Patricia Seitz and Goodman.
“We typically address these issues from the bottom up, beginning with law students, then working our way up to judges,” Bandy said. “In this series, we are featuring legal professionals with vast experience who generously accepted our challenge to reflect on the profession and their careers and be brutally honest about what problems exist and how to best address them from the top down.”
The concept of the series, Lipton says, is rooted in the idea of “passive injustice.” If judges do nothing to fix the professionalism and civility problems before them, are they actually contributing to them?
Judge Goodman, who served from 2006 until his retirement in June 2021, said the role of a judge is to “do justice,” and being the gatekeeper to what they will allow from lawyers before them is certainly part of the job.
“Lawyers … are trying to win their cases and sometimes that motivation to win the case overcomes their professionalism and their obligation that they have to sometimes do things that their clients are not going to be happy with,” said Goodman, now in private practice with Levin, Papantonio, Rafferty in Pensacola.
If the lawyer’s response is to cross an ethical line, he said judges will find out about it, and it is the judge’s responsibility to reel that lawyer back in.
“You do have to pay attention to it, and you do have to attend to it when it happens; and in appropriate situations, you have to sanction it and refer it to a grievance committee,” Goodman said. “That’s the job description.”
Judge Seitz says when lawyers get out of line in her courtroom, “We have a chat” to get the case back on track. “You remind people of their calling and the expectations that I have of their said calling and that this is unacceptable conduct,” Judge Seitz continued.
“If we poison the [well of justice] on this case, we are ultimately cutting ourselves off at the knees, because we have started going down the slippery slope of corrupting the entire system,” said Seitz of unprofessional conduct, adding everybody in the justice system needs to do their part “to keep the water of the communal well clean and as pure as possible.”
Going into a case, Judge Seitz says she works to get opposing counsel to “understand each other as human beings” and gives them her “little speech” on expectations. She reminds them they are learned counsel with vast experience, and “I’m going to hold them [accountable] and help them achieve their goal, and I just want them to know I don’t expect anything less than their very best.”
Goodman said when lawyers “push the envelope,” it is time to talk.
“Most of the time, that is where I would have to call a lawyer up to the bench and have a serious conversation about, OK, let’s tone this down, let’s reel this in a bit,” Goodman said. “I know where you are going with this, but the way you are doing it is not effective, and you are not helping your cause by doing it this way. Let’s try this again. And that usually did the job.”
“your Honor” is available on the Henry Latimer Center for Professionalism’s website.