Thursday, May 23, 2013

Is It OK for a Judge to Call Someone "Hoss" in Court?

Posted By on Thu, May 23, 2013 at 7:42 PM

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There was a weird incident in Environmental Court Thursday. I haven't seen anything like it in my career.

I was covering the "public nuisance" hearing for Club 152 on Beale Street, which was postponed until Friday. Meanwhile, Judge Larry Potter called a couple of other cases.

Some quick background. My use of the word "cases" may be a little misleading. If you appear in Potter's court you are accused of creating some sort of public nuisance from blight to noise to running a rowdy nightclub. Most people are there because of their property, and they represent themselves before the judge and a public prosecutor.

A man named Danny Carter was called. He was a short, bearded, stocky guy in bermuda shorts and a shirt who looked like he didn't take any crap. He was there about his allegedly blighted property. He objected to Potter's description of the property and offered the comment that he was tired of taking pictures of nearby properties that looked worse. He said he did not have the money to fix his property up. That's when things got strange.

Potter, in the midst of some fairly unsympathetic comments, called Carter "hoss." Seconds later, Carter firmly but respectfully took exception to being called "horse" which is not the same as "hoss" but maybe close enough. He told Potter that he "disrespected me." Potter paused for several seconds, apparently deciding how to respond. Then he proceeded to lecture Carter about disrespecting the court, and called him "hoss" again. Carter did not give any ground and spoke up again, drawing a warning from Potter that "there is a place for you." A marshal cautioned Carter to keep his mouth shut. Suddenly three of us reporters in the front row were taking notes. Back to his seat in the courtroom he went. I do not know how his case came out but I would be surprised if it went well for Carter.

Now a little context: In the previous case, Potter was nice as pie, complimenting a man on cleaning up his property in exemplary fashion. So impressed was the judge that he asked the man to offer lessons to the court in a future appearance. And in the case that followed Carter, Potter was back to old school and called the man in front of him "sir." Potter has a good reputation and by his account often works until 6 p.m. But in hundreds of trials and court appearances I have covered, I have never heard a person in the dock addressed as anything but sir, ma'am, Miss, Mrs., or Mr., and that goes for rogues in prison clothes and bluebloods.

I thought an apology to Carter was in order, along the lines of, "sorry about that, won't happen again, now about your case." "Hoss" is sort of like Bub, My Man, Bro, or Fella. It is not insulting or racial but it struck me as overly familiar and distracting. Carter's response, for all I know, could have been influenced by free-wheeling television courtroom shows like Judge Judy or Judge Joe Brown. Or a bad experience with a horse. Whatever, a reminder from the judge that decorum is the order of the day would have been proper.

A judge is a god. Gods must be treated carefully. They're entitled to be human and have bad days. But the rest of us have rights too, and one guy chose to exercise them in his own way. I hope I would have as much sand in the same circumstances and would like to hear what courtroom regulars, witnesses, jurors, judges, lawyers, and defendants think. And my house and yard are squeaky clean, by the way.

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