In regard to the public admonishment of District Court Judge James T. Hill: Yes, he deserved the lick from the N.C. Supreme Court, and willingly admits he deserved it for, among other offenses, telling a brawling couple they were acting like idiots.
Yes, we have no bananas. Sometimes you have to wonder if humor has been banished from the august majesty of the law.
Well, I can say it, having watched the courtroom video that led a thoroughly frustrated Judge Hill to declare his opinion on the mental state of the warring couple, RiShwana and Collin Morrison. They were acting like idiots, and many among us would have been tempted to say the same were we also wearing a black robe.
The Morrison divorce case involving custody of the couple’s 3-year-old son was unusual only in the red-pepper hostility between them that finally erupted into a courtroom dustup.
Yet the proceedings were not without a comic edge, thanks to Judge Hill. A country boy from Rougemont who worked his way through UNC and law school in Alabama, Hill retains the flavor of his upbringing.
So when he told the Morrisons that “Y’all the one that crawled into bed and had sex and made that baby,” he was speaking in Southern vernacular. It’s not the refined speech that legal purists advocate, but you have to admit that Hill made his point – vividly.
Hill was just getting started. He told the Morrisons that although they might “hate each other’s guts,” they had “better act all lovey-dovey” in front of their son.
Moreover, Hill said, if they didn’t refrain from criticizing each other, “Y’all gonna get a little trip to the Durham County Bed and Breakfast.” He repeated that phrase when he summarily sentenced RiShawna Morrison to 24 hours in jail for contempt.
In fact, she kept on going after Hill awarded the couple joint custody of the child. The 24 hours of detention for contempt grew to 30 days.
“Just take me in,” swooned RiShawna. “I can’t do this. This is a disgrace.”
Then came the fracas with bailiffs rushing to the rescue. Hill had lost control of his courtroom.
The full story of what happened that day reads like a Hollywood farce directed by the master of screwball comedy, Howard Hawks.
Naturally, the state supremes couldn’t endorse the proceedings in Hill’s courtroom. They slapped a public reprimand, no more than a tap on the wrist, on Hill.
Yet, I suspect a few chuckles arose during the writing of the reprimand, which Hill accepted in good sport with an apology for his errors.
In fact, while reading the court’s upbraiding, I thought of Oliver Wendell Homes Jr., the U.S. Supreme Court justice who in a 1927 decision famously noted that “three generations of imbeciles is enough.” That decision in a Virginia case involving involuntary sterilization gave impetus to the eugenics movement.
It is passing strange that judicial humor can be found in the darkest corner of the law, and eugenics certainly was that. Yet humor escapes now and then, though it likely was more common in the 19th century.
John Parker, the legendary “hangin’ judge” in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, once told a convicted man that “The sword of human justice trembles over you and is about to fall on your guilty head.”
Imagine a judge using such language today. Beside it, Judge Hill’s description of a couple acting like idiots in his courtroom is pretty lame stuff.
In rarified legal circles, the issue of whether humor is ever appropriate in the courtroom is still debated today. On the whole, the dominant view seems a firm no, it isn’t.
Which is too bad, because humor well applied can relieve tension. But using it is an art in which context is everything.
For example, a Minnesota judge known for courtroom jollity got into trouble when he used a moth-worn Jack Benny joke in a wife’s contentious protection hearing against her husband.
“I’ve been married 45 years,” said Judge Stephen Aldridge. “We’ve never considered divorce, a few times murder, maybe.” You may imagine at your convenience the fallout from that one.
One person’s humor is another person’s insult. Say, have you heard the one about ... sorry, court’s in session.
Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.