Q: A fellow lawyer here, now 15 years. Most of the attorneys I have dealt with are reasonably courteous and professional. But, the legal system frequently is depicted as loud, abrasive and out of control. Do you think there really is civility in the practice today?
G.O., Long Beach
A: California Business and Professional Code Section 6067 is part of the oath we take when we become members of the bar. Hence we pledge to honor the Constitution, and to faithfully carry out our duties. In addition to those promises, the oath we take includes the following: “As an officer of the court, I will strive to conduct myself at all times with dignity, courtesy, and integrity.”
Lawyers are human, and there are some days we do not conduct ourselves as well as we might hope or expect. That said, being collegial and respectful is an integral part of our system, and the process. Recently we saw former President Donald Trump act out in court. In one case he was sanctioned twice; in another a jury came back with a monumental verdict against him. My experience, including at trial, is that the sinister or unduly combative lawyer (and litigant) do not fare well with the judge or the jury.
The expression “you get more bees with honey” should be taken seriously. Yes, lawyers have to be strong, resolute and not let down their guard. This can be done in a manner that demonstrates courtesy and professionalism, which is how it is supposed to (and should) be. The courts can insist on it!
Q: Two questions: On what grounds can a judge impose a monetary sanction against a lawyer?
D.M., Mission Viejo
A: There are a number of bases upon which a lawyer can be the subject of a monetary sanction imposed by the judge. For example, it can happen in discovery if the lawyer has acted in an unjustified manner, such as failing or refusing to provide documents or other material information. Also, if a lawyer is notably rude in court, or violates an established rule, or is found to have acted frivolously, the judge has the discretion to impose a sanction.
Q: Second question: Can the judge sanction a witness in a case?
A: CCP Section 177.5 sets forth that “A judicial officer shall have the power to impose reasonable monetary sanctions, not to exceed fifteen hundred dollars… payable to the court, for any violation of a lawful court order by a person, done without good cause or substantial justification.” A witness can be the person, so the judge can sanction a witness in a case.
Ron Sokol has been a practicing attorney for over 40 years, and has also served many times as a judge pro tem, mediator, and arbitrator. It is important to keep in mind that this column presents a summary of the law, and is not to be treated or considered legal advice, let alone a substitute for actual consultation with a qualified professional.