Reading a Chicago Tribune account of a Will County judge who seems to have a tendency for putting people in jail for improper behavior in his courtroom reminded me of the closest I ever came to being found in contempt in a courtroom.
It was some two decades ago when I worked for the now-defunct City News Bureau of Chicago, and I was at the Criminal Courts building (26th and California) to cover the sentencing of a man who killed another in a brawl that took place outside a tavern near Midway Airport.
AS I RECALL, one man reached for something and the other man thought it was a pistol. So he grabbed a bat and clubbed the first man to death. As it turned out, it was a tire iron.
So perhaps the man on trial had legitimate reason to believe he was defending himself, which is why he got six months in the Cook County Jail as his sentence.
There was one other factor involved in this particular case, and it was the reason this barroom quarrel-turned-ugly got covered. The man on trial was the son of a Chicago police violent crimes detective.
Which means that courtroom was packed with cops trying to console their colleague at the thought that his son now had a felony conviction and would have to do a little bit of jail time.
THAT ALSO MEANT the judge in question knew very well that his every action was being watched, and that he likely was going to make an enemy or two regardless of how he handled himself.
Which is why on the day of sentencing, he turned into an overly nit-picky person when it came to courtroom decorum.
And when he happened to look out and see me whisper a question to the person sitting next to me, the next thing I know, I’m being singled out and told that I will be sitting in that jail cell in the back of the courtroom if I don’t keep quiet.
That was the extent of the moment, and he eventually handed down the sentence (which thoroughly offended the family of the man who was clubbed to death).
BUT MY POINT is that it usually takes extreme circumstances to provoke a judge to find someone in contempt of court and hand down a quickie jail sentence for it. No matter what television courtrooms might have us think, judges don’t routinely “fly off the handle” and engage in tirades against people.
It usually takes something along the line of a person using profanity directed toward a judge, such as one time at 26th and California I recall a man who wore clothing to court too casual for the judge’s taste. When the judge pointed that fact out, the man responded with an obscene phrase.
That caused the judicial outburst that I recall even shocked the deputies in the courtroom, who at first did not react when the judge handed down his contempt ruling and a 30-day jail sentence – which ticked the judge off even more.
As I recall for that man, he was released about an hour later, after the judge in question calmed down.
THE REASON I remember these incidents so well is that such behavior by a judge is rare. Even the judges who like to “play God,” so to speak, usually maintain a sense of decorum about their personal behavior – even if the conduct and appearance of the masses who flow through the courtrooms every day is often a direct contrast.
If the Tribune’s account is at all correct, it would appear Will County is an exception. Or at least one judge is.
As the newspaper reports it, there have been five contempt charges brought by judges at the courthouse based in downtown Joliet – and four of them have been by the same judge.
The newspaper chose to highlight the case of a man who was at the courthouse to watch his cousin appear before the judge on a drug charge. He yawned, which offended the judge so badly that he’s now serving a six-month sentence in the county jail, and must do at least 21 days before anyone can consider letting him loose for good behavior.
NOW I WASN’T in this particular courtroom at the time, so I don’t know whether to believe the convicted yawner, who says his body engaged in an “involuntary action” or prosecutors, who say the man in question made a particularly loud yawn to try to disrupt the courtroom proceedings.
But it just seems bizarre for one judge to rack up so many more of these contempt charges than everybody else.
I think the key is in a line in the Tribune story, which says, “observers describe (the judge) as running the type of strict courtroom that was common a few decades ago.”
We’re talking the kind of court where spectators would “all rise” when the bailiff announced the entrance of the judge, where everybody knew the phrase “your honor” was appropriate when speaking to the man in the black robe, and where no one would have thought to wear shorts and a t-shirt depicting a rap star when appearing before the judge in court.
IT’S A LOT like everything else in our society, where a lot of the old sensibilities just don’t apply anymore.
Even when I became a reporter-type person some two decades ago, a lot of those old “rules” were breaking down. Now, when I go into courtrooms to cover things, they can almost appear to be free-for-alls, with sheriff’s deputies having to repeatedly tell people to “take a seat” and “no kids in the courtroom.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Daniel Rozak, a judge in Will County, got himself some publicity that likely (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-jailed-for-yawning-10-aug10,0,3679452.story) will gain him both admirers and detractors.