The Louisville Courier Journal reported recently that Kentucky judges' gavels are ‘dinosaurs.' It recounts the Hollywood perception of wooden hammers and the efforts of judges to maintain decorum in a hearing setting. The Journal posits that Kentucky judges do not use gavels much anymore and that these instead have "gone the way of the powdered wig." The story quotes an attorney's claim that "gavel-swinging judges were commonplace in the 1970s," in comparison to a rarity today. Others contend that it was never as prevalent as Hollywood has characterized it to be.
The perception is that "Judges still have them," but they have become decorations or paperweights. The author asserts that they are received as gifts, but "rarely, if at all" used. Apparently, it is not a recent mass extinction either. Sources are quoted as saying these are "long gone,” or "never used." There is some perception that "smacking a gavel at an unruly lawyer or litigant is too imperious and smacks of arrogance."
One Circuit Judge is quoted claiming that "any judge 'worth his or her salt should command the respect of all in the courtroom without the aid of a gavel.'” Some contend that technology and modernization have led to the tool's demise. The article mentions smaller courtrooms and the presence of microphones that perhaps aid with amplifying a voice. One judge is quoted as endorsing the raised voice, claiming he "can be as loud as a gavel.” Another judge is quoted that he "uses his gavel ironically, to punctuate his jokes." Yet another "said he used it to wake people, but mostly for fun."
Contrarily, the article quotes both a Circuit and a federal judge who recount circumstances in which they felt compelled to gavel loudly. One said a "criminal defendant cursed at him," and his gaveling "dented the bench." Afterwards, the judge felt that he "got control again.” The federal judge quoted described a "hyperaggressive" attorney being "gaveled . . . to silence."
Years ago, one of the Florida JCCs had a very large gavel (the handle was perhaps two feet long) that was kept in the hearing room. It was a conversation piece, and similar to the article's contention had been received as a gift. Certainly, it was memorable. I have been in many hearing locations over the years, and I can still picture that hand-made gavel leaning behind this judge's bench. As a memento or gift, there is certainly nothing wrong with a gavel. But, is it an appropriate tool for the unruly or not? I tend to side with the contention that order can be achieved without such pounding.
Another aspect of the news story refers to court security. Some contend that a "bailiff's sidearm is a more effective deterrent to misbehavior than a wooden hammer and sounding block." I have not witnessed any hearings in which either of those was necessary. And, that is a great compliment to the professionalism and demeanor of not only the many practitioners that frequent this system, but to the citizens on both sides of the argument that participate as well.
The article notes that in Kentucky there is no provision for the government to purchase such accouterments. It says that "neither federal nor state judges in Kentucky are formally issued gavels," but "must buy them with their own money." For the federal judges, "the same is true of a robe." The state will buy its judges gavels upon request, for about "$85.50 each." And, the requests are infrequent. The Florida OJCC does not buy gavels for judges, nor powdered wigs.
I was gifted a gavel upon my initial appointment. I recall for years keeping it on the hearing room table. When Judge Winn was appointed in Pensacola in 2006, I cleared that out. I struggle to remember where that gavel is today, or when I last saw it. I am not comfortable saying I never used it, but for the life of me cannot remember any instance that I did. Curious how evolution changes our world around us. The only constant, they say, is change.
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