Judges and their gavels

30 San Diego judges say they never use 'em

Gavels are the judicial equivalent of ugly ties and cheap cologne.
  • Gavels are the judicial equivalent of ugly ties and cheap cologne.
  • Image by Rick Geary

Dear Matthew Alice: Any rime you see judges portrayed on TV, they’re always whamming away on their desks with their gavels. I’ve never ever seen a real judge use one. Do real judges ever use their gavels? And if they don’t, why do they own them? — Court Watcher, San Diego

Last time I checked, life was not a made-for-TV movie. I know reality seems dull by comparison, but I guess we’ll just have to live with that. In particular, the day-to-day proceedings in most courtrooms probably wouldn’t score high with Nielsen families and would be axed from the schedule in mid-season. But to get to the truth of this particular matter, I sent questionnaires to several dozen Municipal and Superior Court judges in San Diego asking about their gavel habits — Do they own one? Have they ever used one? — just what the heck is going on here? From the tone of their answers, we could say the gavel is like an appendix on the great alimentary canal of justice. An idle appendage. A vestige of the early days of the British court system, like powdered wigs. And just about as useful, except to TV directors staging unruly courtroom scenes.

The 30 judges who responded were virtually unanimous in saying they have never used their gavels. Since they represent a combined total of nearly 200 years on the bench, 1 think we have a trend here. Only two had actually used their gavels. In at least one instance, the gavel was used for slightly snide dramatic effect. The judge called a ten-minute recess, rose, and started for chambers. Despite these clues that there was an official pause in the proceedings, one attorney complained that he couldn’t tell that a recess had been called, so for the remainder of the trial, the judge accompanied recess calls with a whap of the gavel for his benefit. In the other instance, a witness just couldn’t seem to shut up, even after being told to, so the judge resorted to the gavel to make the point a little clearer.

About 15 percent of the judges surveyed don’t even own a gavel. And here we find our second basic truth — judges don’t buy gavels, they nearly always receive them as gifts. It’s the judicial equivalent of ugly ties and cheap cologne, the inevitable thoughtful gift from proud friends and relatives. Most judges seem to stow their gavels in chambers or leave them on the bench to get lost under stacks of files and papers. Some keep them at home.

Asked why judges have gavels at all (aside from the unavoidable gifts), most jurists were stumped for a real answer. Gavels make handy paperweights, and you could crack walnuts with them, a few suggest. Considering the condition of our downtown courthouse, it occurs to me that gavels might come in handy to make emergency structural repairs.

One judge summed up the situation by declaring that his bailiff s sidearm is more effective at keeping order in the courtroom than any gavel. Besides, he admitted, if he owned a gavel, he might be tempted occasionally to throw it at “deserving attorneys and/or to induce certain witnesses to be more candid in their testimony.” But we’ll probably be seeing that any day now on LA. Law, so just stay tuned.

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