Courtroom Etiquette 101 (2023)


By Benson Varghese

Last Updated: June 4th, 2020

Published on: September 24th, 2016

Table of Contents

Check Electronics, E-Cigs, and Emotions at Door

For one reason or another, just about everyone will enter a criminal courtroom at some point in their lives. Whether you’re a defendant, a potential juror, or a college student researching a class assignment, proper courtroom etiquette is required.

Saying, doing, or wearing the wrong thing in court is a surefire way to get shown the door — or in extreme instances, end up behind bars for contempt of court.

Here’s a look at basic courtroom etiquette rules and how some judges laid down the law for breaches of decorum.

Turn off cell phones.

Just about every courthouse in the country has signs prohibiting phones or warning visitors to turn them off. Despite these announcements, phones routinely go off in court and disrupt proceedings.

In 2004, a 17-year-old defendant facing a drug charge was sentenced to 21 days in jail for contempt of court when her cell phone rang after the Judge warned everyone in the courtroom to turn off their electronic devices.

“If you don’t know how to shut it off, go outside and introduce it to the heel of your shoe,” New York District Court Judge Salvatore Alamia said, according to an editorial in the Pitt News.

A decade later in Michigan, another Judge took a hard line against cellphone violations — his own.

Judge Raymond Voet held himself in contempt of court and assessed a $25 fine in April 2013 after his phone interrupted a prosecutor’s closing argument. Voet has a policy posted in his courtroom, announcing that ringing phones will be confiscated and returned only after a $25 fine is paid.

“I detest distraction in the courtroom and here it happened to me,” Voet told “…I felt my face starting to burn red.”

No food, drink, gum, or tobacco in court.

Back in the day, it wasn’t uncommon for Judges and attorneys to light up in chambers or even during a trial. These days, tobacco, food, drink, and gum, is strictly prohibited in most courtrooms.

E-cigarettes should also be left at home.

In 2013, a Grand Rapids, Michigan, woman was asked to leave Judge James Redford’s courtroom after a deputy spotted her using her phone and taking puffs from an E-cigarette.

“I’m going, dammit,” she responded loudly, a reaction that didn’t sit well with the Judge.

According to, the Judge ordered her into custody and, later during a contempt hearing, asked her if she wanted to say anything before she was sentenced.

“I just thought it was totally retarded that I can’t smoke my E-cigarette,” she replied. “I can smoke it on the bus. You can smoke them anywhere.”

The Judge sentenced the woman – who was wearing what appeared to be pajamas – to five days in jail and assessed a $250 fine.

Dress appropriately.

People entering a courtroom should be dressed in a manner that shows dignity and respect for the court. Save caps, cut-offs, T-shirts with marijuana leaves, spandex, low-cut blouses — and yes, pajamas — for another day.

Some courts have stricter dress codes than others.

Take Municipal Judge Kevin Madison, of Lakeway, Texas. In 2010, Madison made headlines for banning boots in his courtroom. He lifted the ban, however, after the Austin American-Statesman caught wind of it and printed a story, creating a Texas-sized dustup.

“Oh my goodness, you would have thought I was renaming the state…New Jersey or something,” Madison told the paper.

Because Judge’s have wide discretion to create specific rules for their court, it’s always a good idea to find out the dress code before you go. For example, one judge may allow defendants to wear jeans in their courtroom, while a different judge in the same building strictly forbids it.

Suffice to say, saggy jeans are almost always a “DON’T.”

In April 2012, an Alabama defendant charged with stolen property was cited for contempt and jailed because he “showed his butt in court.” Judge John Bush didn’t appreciate his low hanging pants, according to The Smoking Gun.

“You can spend three days in jail,” the Judge told the defendant. “When you get out you can buy pants that fit, or at least get a belt to hold up your pants so your underwear doesn’t show.”

Stand when the judge enters the courtroom.

Judges not only represent the ultimate authority of the court, but also the law. Standing when a judge enters the room or the bailiff calls “all rise” is intended to show respect for the legal system.

In October 2011, a Muslim woman on trial for terrorism-related charges was found in contempt of court and ordered to spend 100 days in jail after refusing to stand each time the federal Judge entered or left his Minneapolis courtroom. She cited religious freedom as her reason for staying seated, according to a story in The Wall Street Journal.

U.S. District Judge Michael Davis was unfazed.

“You may have an interpretation of your religion that says you cannot rise, but I can tell you that the law of the United States is clear that the freedom of religion does not keep you from rising and following the decorum of the court,” he told her.

After serving two nights in jail, the defendant began to comply with the Judge’s order and was released.

Leave the kids at home.

Generally speaking, court is not a place for children. Not only are observers required to sit and be quiet for long periods of time, but the subject matter and testimony that comes from the bench and witness stand is usually not suitable for kids.

Many jurisdictions expressly forbid children in the courtroom and there is no daycare service. In Tarrant County, Texas, for example, there are 12 local rules of conduct that everyone must follow when entering a felony court. “No children” is on the list.

No reading newspapers, propping feet on tables or chairs, or napping.

The courtroom is a serious place. Respect for the dignity and authority of the court should be shown at all times. Rustling newspapers, propping up feet, or nodding off is inappropriate.

In 2005, a potential juror got a rude awakening when he was fined for letting out a loud yawn during jury selection in a Los Angeles courtroom, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“I’m sorry, but I’m really bored,” the juror told Superior Court Judge Craig Veals when questioned about his audible yawn.

“I’m sorry?” repeated the judge. “Your boredom just cost you $1,000…I’m finding you in contempt.”

The judge later reduced the fine to $100 but not before detaining the juror for two hours.

No overt advertising, campaign buttons or campaign material are permitted in the courtroom.

At least one federal circuit has held that judges have the authority to ban political buttons in the courtroom.

In July 2015, an Ohio judge did just that — and made national headlines. Youngstown Municipal Court Judge Robert Milich jailed Andrea Burton, a black female attorney, for refusing to remove a Black Lives Matter pin, according to WKBN. Finding the button too political and provocative for the courtroom, the Judge held Andrea Burton in contempt and sentenced her to five days in jail after she refused his order to remove her pin. Although Burton was handcuffed, she was released while the decision was appealed. The matter has since been resolved, with the judge agreeing to dismiss the contempt citation and the attorney agreeing to dismiss the appeal.

No courtroom outbursts.

Emotions run high in courtrooms, especially when decisions and verdicts can be life-altering. Still, courtroom decorum requires all parties to refrain from gestures, facial expressions, or outbursts.

In 2010, Texas District Court Judge George Gallagher jailed defendant Robert Washington – and his mother – for contempt of court after they whooped and hollered after jurors acquitted him of murder.

According to the Associated Press, the defendant “did his celebration dance,” while his mother “jumped up and gave high-fives to the people around her.”

“It was as if he had caught the winning touchdown and spiked the ball in front of the defensive back,” Judge Gallagher told the news outlet. “All I saw was the physical response, and it was totally inappropriate.”

Two years later, a different murder defendant in another Fort Worth courtroom had the opposite reaction to a punishment verdict.

In 2012, defendant Broderick Patterson was removed from state District Judge Robb Catalano’s court after he erupted with anger and shouted a stream of obscenities after jurors sentenced him to life in prison for fatally shooting a Fort Worth honor student. His outburst was captured on video by NBC 5 and other news media covering the trial.

“I love you, Mama,” Patterson yelled. “All y’all on the jury, f— yall! …State, f— you too!”

Attorney Christy Jack, the prosecutor on the case who now works as a defense attorney for Varghese Summersett PLLC, said Patterson’s behavior in court illustrates why rules and decorum are so important.

“In court, people’s lives and livelihood are often on the line,” said Jack whose legal career has spanned more than two decades. “The stakes are high and anything can happen. Maintaining decorum in and around the courtroom not only ensures the public’s safety, but is essential to the fair administration of justice.”

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What can I say when I don t want to answer a question when testifying? ›

If you don't know an answer, say so.
Good ways to say anything but "No Comment" to questions you really don't want to answer:
  • "I'm sorry but I'm not able to speak to that subject"
  • "Thanks for asking but I'm not able to answer that question"
  • "I'm sorry but that information is proprietary"
Jul 17, 2008

What are the rules of etiquette in the courtroom? ›

Refer to the Judge as “Your Honor.” Stand up when the Judge and jury enter and leave the courtroom. Stand when speaking to the Judge. No food or beverages are allowed in the courtroom.
  • Direct all remarks to the Judge.
  • Be respectful to the opposing side.
  • Do not cause interruptions.

What not to say to judge? ›

Do Not Exaggerate, Mislead, or State Anything Untrue. It goes without saying that you should never lie to a judge (that is perjury), but you should also avoid exaggerating the facts or misleading the court about any issue. Most judges can sense when a witness is stretching the truth, and they do not appreciate it.

Do you have to answer questions yes or no in court? ›

Give the answer in your own words, and if a question can't be truthfully answered with "yes" or "no," you have the right to explain your answer. Answer only the question asked you.

Can you say I decline to answer in court? ›

Even if you have already answered some questions, you can refuse to answer other questions until you have a lawyer.

What to say to a judge if you don't know the answer? ›

If you don't know the answer, say “I don't know,” and offer, with the court's permission, to provide the answer after oral argument, with a copy to opposing counsel.

What are the 5 rules of etiquette? ›

"Please" and "thank you," holding doors, chewing with our mouths closed, dressing appropriately, shaking hands—these are all manners. They are important because they give us confidence, allow our focus to be on the substance of our interactions, and they tell us what to do and what to expect others to do in return.

What are 5 rules of etiquette you follow? ›

Rules of Etiquette
  • Be yourself – and allow others to treat you with respect. Let this one sink in, ladies. ...
  • Say “Thank You” ...
  • Give Genuine Compliments. ...
  • Don't be Boastful, Arrogant or Loud. ...
  • Listen Before Speaking. ...
  • Speak with Kindness and Caution. ...
  • Do Not Criticize or Complain. ...
  • Be Punctual.

What is the golden rule of etiquette? ›

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This seems the most familiar version of the golden rule, highlighting its helpful and proactive gold standard.

How do you win a judge's favor? ›

How to Persuade a Judge
  1. Your arguments must make logical sense. ...
  2. Know your audience.
  3. Know your case.
  4. Know your adversary's case.
  5. Never overstate your case. ...
  6. If possible lead with the strongest argument.
  7. Select the most easily defensible position that favors your case.
  8. Don't' try to defend the indefensible.
Nov 1, 2008

What do judges want to hear? ›

At the end of the day, a judge wants to hear three things: accountability, responsibility, and remorse. They also want to hear your reasoning. Why did you commit the crime in the first place? In addition to this, they want to hear what's different now.

What to say in court when you don't agree? ›

No objection. Not that I recall. Objection. Objection to the form, your Honor.

What is the best way to answer a question in court? ›

Listen carefully to the questions you are asked. If you don't understand the question, have it repeated, then give a thoughtful, considered answer. DO NOT GIVE AN ANSWER WITHOUT THINKING. While answers should not be rushed, neither should there be any unnaturally long delay to a simple question if you know the answer.

Do you have to answer all questions as a witness? ›

You Don't Have to Answer Every Deposition Question (And In Some Cases, You Shouldn't) Your attorney has prepped you for your deposition. You're pretty clear on what will happen, who will be present, and what you should do if you are unable to answer a question.

Can you plead the fifth to every question? ›

The Fifth Amendment can be invoked only in certain situations. An individual can only invoke the Fifth Amendment in response to a communication that is compelled, such as through a subpoena or other legal process. The communication must also be testimonial in nature.

How do you politely decline an answer? ›

You can also refuse to answer the question, but be sure to be polite. “Say, 'I appreciate that this is of interest but we don't feel sharing the information is appropriate, especially at this time. But I'd be glad to answer other questions if you have them,'” says Sullivan. “Appreciate the interest but draw lines.”

How do you answer questions without incriminating yourself? ›

Remember, no matter what happens, even if the officer says you are being detained or arrested, you don't have to answer any questions. Simply say that you wish to exercise your right to remain silent and say nothing more. If pushed to talk, repeat the same answer.

How do you say hello to a judge? ›

In person: In an interview, social event, or in court, address a judge as “Your Honor” or “Judge [last name].” If you are more familiar with the judge, you may call her just “Judge.” In any context, avoid “Sir” or “Ma'am.”

How do you answer difficult questions in court? ›

Luckily for you, there are some simple techniques you can use to buy that extra time you need before responding to a difficult question.
  1. Pause (Part 1). ...
  2. Repeat the question. ...
  3. Pause (Part 2). ...
  4. Ask the questioner to repeat their question. ...
  5. Clarify the question.
Feb 6, 2009

How do you tell a judge you're sorry? ›

"I would take any steps needed to repair what I've done." What would you like the judge to know about you before you are sentenced? "I take full responsibility for what I have done and apologize to her, the court and most of all the victims in this case. I would like to fix this in any way I can."

What are the 3 R's in etiquette? ›

Knowing the three R's of business etiquette is a useful guide: Recognition, Respect and Response.

What are the 3 principles of etiquette? ›

All manners traditionally convey one or more of the 3 Principles of Etiquette: Respect, Consideration, and Honesty.

What is the most important etiquette rule? ›

“In etiquette, these are the most important words: 'Please,' 'May I … ,' 'Thank you' and 'You're welcome,'” says Grotts. “These basic social niceties show respect and kindness, work in every situation and can never be said too much.”

What is etiquette in simple words? ›

Etiquette is a set of customs and rules for polite behaviour, especially among a particular class of people or in a particular profession.

What is the platinum rule of etiquette? ›

The idea behind the Platinum Rule is you don't just treat other people the way you would want to be treated, you treat them the way they would want to be treated. The idea is that in an increasingly diverse and complicated world it's not enough to simply apply your standard to everybody that you meet.

What is the platinum rule? ›

The Platinum Rule was popularized in Dr. Tony Alessandra's book of the same name. The Platinum Rule goes this way: “Treat others the way they want to be treated.” The Platinum Rule is a very subtle yet powerful and important shift from false consensus.

What are the two golden rules? ›

Treat others as you would like others to treat you (positive or directive form) Do not treat others in ways that you would not like to be treated (negative or prohibitive form)

Do judges look at body language? ›

Brilliant lawyers and judges are expected to have a good eye for interpreting people's voices, manner of speaking, choice of words, and body language.

How do you look good in front of a judge? ›

Your Day in Court: How to Behave in Front of a Judge
  1. Dress conservatively and professionally. No sandals. ...
  2. Keep your makeup minimal and natural. Don't get crazy with that eye shadow. ...
  3. Remove the metal from your face. ...
  4. Don't wear a belt or complicated shoes. ...
  5. Don't speak unless you're spoken to. ...
  6. Bring evidence in triplicate.
Nov 30, 2022

What should I say to a judge? ›

Address the judge as “Your honor” or “judge (name)” and continue to stand as you speak to them. The judge will listen to what you say. The judge may call you up to the stand to continue with your case. Follow the judge's direction on what to do for the hearing.

What colors are best to wear to court? ›

The best color to wear to court is probably navy blue or dark gray. These colors suggest seriousness. At the same time, they do not come with the negative connotations that are often associated with the color black (for instance, some people associate black with evil, coldness, and darkness).

How do you win in court every time? ›

Tips for Success in the Courtroom
  1. Meet Your Deadlines. ...
  2. Choose a Judge or Jury Trial. ...
  3. Learn the Elements of Your Case. ...
  4. Make Sure Your Evidence Is Admissible. ...
  5. Prepare a Trial Notebook.
  6. Learn the Ropes.
  7. Watch Some Trials. ...
  8. Be Respectful.

How do you present yourself before a judge? ›

Seven Tips When Representing Yourself In Court
  1. Make a good impression. If you dress nicely, it tells the judge that you respect the courtroom and care about your case.
  2. Be respectful. ...
  3. Know what to ask. ...
  4. Arrive early. ...
  5. Tell your story. ...
  6. Come prepared. ...
  7. Use a lawyer if you need help.

How do you talk to a judge in court? ›

Be polite and respectful.

Always keep your calm. Answer only the questions that are being asked. Try not to steer from the argument. If you do not know the answer to a question, either ask for some time to prepare by referring to your notes or admit truthfully that you do not know the answer.

What do you say before sentencing? ›

Their statements should be truthful, sincere and explain why they regret committing the crime. Also, a statement should be made accepting responsibility for the crime and reasons why they are writing the letter to the judge — a defendant should ask for a lesser fine or a shorter sentence.

What do judges look for in a character reference? ›

Judges receive character letters that state how wonderful a person is or how the person is honest, supportive, and trustworthy. However, a judge needs specific examples of how the person's actions exhibit these traits.

How do you say I don't know in court? ›

Lawyers may also tell witnesses that if they don't remember certain events, they can simply say “I don't recall.” In general, such instructions are not improper. A witness cannot, however, repeatedly answer “I don't recall” to avoid truthfully answering questions.

What do judges say when someone is not guilty? ›

If a defendant is found not guilty, by the magistrate, jury or judge, they will be 'acquitted' and free to go. If the defendant pleads guilty or is found guilty by the judge or jury, they are convicted and the judge will pass sentence.

How do you talk to confidence in court? ›

Tips for Feeling Confident in the Courtroom
  1. Prepare. The best way to maintain your confidence in the courtroom is to know your case as best you can. ...
  2. Ask Questions. ...
  3. Dress Your Best. ...
  4. Practice Speaking. ...
  5. Don't Bring Any Distractions.
Feb 13, 2020

What to say when you don t want to answer a question? ›

10 English Phrases to Avoid Answering a Question
  1. #1 – No comment.
  2. #2 – I'm not at liberty to say.
  3. #3 – Wait and see.
  4. #4 – Let me get back to you.
  5. #5 – I'm sorry, that's confidential.
  6. #6 – (Sorry) That's personal.
  7. #7 – I'd rather not talk about it.
  8. #8 – Mind your own business.

Can witnesses decline to answer questions? ›

The testimony would incriminate yourself – Under the Fifth Amendment in the Constitution, you have the right to avoid giving any evidence that could self-incriminate you. In most cases, you can plead the Fifth Amendment, which legally allows you to refuse answering questions.

Can I plead the fifth as a witness? ›

Pleading the Fifth as a Witness

You also have the right to plead the Fifth when you are a witness in a federal criminal case. Much like with a defendant, a witness may refuse to answer any questions that might tend to implicate them in a crime.

Can a witness just say I don't remember? ›

"I don't recall" is often the most truthful answer if you're not sure. Then if the document shows up, it may refresh your memory, but it doesn't contradict your sworn testimony. On the other hand, if something is fundamental and wrong, you would never have done or said that. Don't hide the truth behind memory.

How do you answer a question you don't know the answer to? ›

How to respond when you don't know the answer to a question
  1. Stay calm. Interviewers may sometimes ask a difficult question to assess your response, rather than to test your knowledge. ...
  2. Ask clarifying questions. ...
  3. Share what you do know. ...
  4. Be honest. ...
  5. Express your desire to learn.
May 2, 2022

How do you avoid answering incriminating questions? ›

Ten strategies to avoid answering inappropriate questions
  1. Answer the original question with another question. ...
  2. Respond with sarcasm or a joke. ...
  3. Redirect the question to a topic that you do feel comfortable discussing. ...
  4. Call it out. ...
  5. Begin your answer by saying the word “No” ...
  6. Answer ambiguously or immediately change the subject.
Mar 21, 2016

What to say if you don t know the answer in a defense? ›

If you're not sure you understood the question, rephrase it. If appropriate, you might explain why your dissertation research didn't address the specific point, that the posed question could lead to further research, and you might improvise what a project designed to answer the question might look like.

What happens if a witness refuses to answer questions on the stand? ›

Witnesses have to testify (tell the court what they know) by answering questions from either side or the judge. If a witness refuses to answer a question, the judge can find them in contempt of court and jail them.

Is it OK to not know the answer? ›

Yes, it is always okay not to have all of the answers.

How do you handle no as an answer? ›

How Do You Feel About Taking No For An Answer?
  1. Make a distinction as to how you would respond based on who is saying no.
  2. If it's a supervisor saying no, respond that you would respect his or her decision.
  3. It's also a good idea to mention your willingness to understand the decision so that you can improve for the future.

What are examples of incriminating questions? ›

It is legally allowed for the cop to ask you things like: Where are you coming from? How much have you had to drink? Do you know why I pulled you over? Your answers to these questions can be used against you in court, and you should not say anything in response.

How do you deflect difficult questions? ›

8 ways to deflect tough interview questions
  1. Acknowledge the question without answering it. ...
  2. Ignore the question completely. ...
  3. Question the question. ...
  4. Attack the question, ...
  5. Decline to answer. ...
  6. Give an incomplete answer. ...
  7. State or imply the question has already been answered. ...
  8. Defer to the will of others.
Jun 1, 2020

Can you say to police I don't answer questions? ›

Although this might seem more official than a casual conversation, you're under no obligation to answer them. You can decline to answer and walk away. The police aren't allowed to use refusal to answer questions as a reason to search or arrest you.

What do you say in a meeting when you don't know the answer? ›

Try saying something along the lines of, “That's an interesting question, could I take some time to think it over and get back to you?” or “That's a great question, I could give you a partial answer, but I would like to consider it further and get back to you with a full answer.”

How do you respond when you can t answer questions from the audience? ›

How to answer difficult questions from the audience
  1. Prepare for difficult questions.
  2. Stay calm.
  3. Respond briefly and to the point.
  4. Bounce the ball back.
  5. Be honest if you don't know the answer.
  6. Maintain control.
Dec 14, 2021

Is it okay to say we in defense? ›

If it's your official thesis defense presentation, you're representing your work, so it would be fine to use "I". But others may prefer to stick with the common "we". There is no 'correct' answer here. You should do what you feel comfortable with.

Do you have to answer every question as a witness? ›

You Don't Have to Answer Every Deposition Question (And In Some Cases, You Shouldn't) Your attorney has prepped you for your deposition. You're pretty clear on what will happen, who will be present, and what you should do if you are unable to answer a question.

Can you plead the fifth as a witness? ›

You also have the right to plead the Fifth when you are a witness in a federal criminal case. Much like with a defendant, a witness may refuse to answer any questions that might tend to implicate them in a crime.

Can you plead the 5th on the stand? ›

Yes, you can plead the fifth in a civil trial or deposition. But, whether you should or should not do so is often an issue that requires you to waive certain risks and benefits. If you refuse to testify in a civil matter, there can be adverse consequences for the case.


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