My Cousin Vinny is an open love letter to trial procedure and the deep south. In this three-part series, Jackie Houser shares some of her favorite takeaways from this 90’s classic along with her own sage advice from all her years of trial experience.
One of the most endearing running jokes in this movie is the constant offenses our dear protagonist unknowingly commits because he has not learned the rules of the courtroom. He wears the wrong clothes, he does not know when to stand or how to approach the bench, and he struggles to adapt to proper procedure.
Some of his obstacles are attributed to the clash of cultures as this New Yorker assimilates to the ways of the deep south, but much of what Vinny experiences within the walls of the courtroom are still observed and practiced across most courtrooms thirty years later. Whether a witness, party, juror, or member of the gallery, there are rules to be mindful of should you ever find yourself in a courtroom.
First and foremost, it is incredibly important to be mindful of how you dress to attend court. The goal is to choose an outfit that will show respect for the institution. The best advice is to dress as though you are going to church or to an interview. Specifically, avoid bold/busy patterns, sundresses, and jeans. A nice blazer or suit jacket is always a safe choice–but not a leather jacket as our dear Vinny found out. Muted colors and closed-toed shoes (ladies!) are also great choices. Make sure that whatever you choose to wear, it is clean and tidy-looking. No hats. And, gentlemen, tuck in those shirt tails and pull up those britches so that the waist band is around the waist.
Next, be aware of the rules of procedure. This will include simple–-yet incredibly important—things such as when to stand, where you are allowed to be and where you are not, when and how you are allowed to speak and when you are not. It will also include more sophisticated processes such as how to get evidence presented, how to submit motions, how to speak to the court staff and question the witnesses. If you are representing yourself, then pay attention to the instructions from the court. If you have retained counsel, make sure you have an attorney who has experience in the courtroom. Make sure your attorney is someone who is willing and ready to set you up for success in these areas, offering advice and strategy about how best to approach your case.
Finally, respect the judge and the institution of our civil and criminal justice system. Regardless of our personal opinions of the judges, we respect their role and the institution. We look past the man or woman and honor the office that they hold.
In our society we resolve disputes about injury and money in a civil manner, either with a bench trial—where the judge is the factfinder—or with a jury of twelve strangers who serve as our “factfinders.” The factfinders will hear the evidence, determine the truth, and render a verdict; and, we agree to accept these verdicts or follow additional rules of procedure for an appeal. Because we are a civil society, we respect the institution.
Remember, in a courtroom, it is a legal fight, not a literal fight. We do not settle differences in wrestling matches or duels. We honor the civil process and follow the proper procedures to come to a conclusion.
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