What Happens Inside a Courtroom? Courtroom Ethnography Assignment Part I


Apart from a few situations, the members of the public are allowed to enter the court and listen to the proceedings. There is no doubt that courts are very formal settings, with some etiquettes, rules, and procedures that should be followed. From the outside the court all the way to the inside, those coming in contact with the court should behave in a formal manner. Within the court’s formal setting, various activities occur, and different individuals participate in the activities. Every person entering the courtroom has the designated place depending on their role in the proceedings.

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Outside the Court and Entering

At the entrance of the building, there is an array of stairs leading to the interior of the building. There is a word justice cast on the side of the steps. The outside of the building is the Contemplation of Justice. The outside also has matching pediment and columns with important figures in the country’s justice system’s history. The building has a monumental bronze door that open to the inside. The door has panels depicting historical scenes. There are oak doors opening in the Court Chamber. On entering the courtroom, there is thorough searching for security purposes. Anyone entering the court is expected to enter through the metal detectors. There are security officers at the entrance search the personal belongings, and other items considered dangerous, including weapons, are confiscated.  The public enters the court and sit in their designated places.

Sitting Arrangement for the Public

The public is free to attend the court hearings for most cases. If one is intending to attend the court cases, it is necessary to maintain time to avoid interruptions. A sitting place is set aside for the public; the courtroom gallery. The sitting place is on the opposite side of the bar, at the back of the room, normally facing the judge. The courtroom has seats reserved for spectators. The seats are normally separated from the sitting position of the judge and the other employees of the court. The setting of the sitting place for the public is the pew style benches. In this setting, there are rows of benches that are normally occupied by the spectators. The public could be present just as curious spectators, or they could be present to offer moral support to the defendant or plaintiff. However, they are expected to remain silent during the whole session.

Appropriate Dressing

 When attending the court proceedings, there are appropriate dress codes that should be strictly followed. The judges wore black judicial robes, a short bench wig. Besides these two, the judge should also wear a wing collar and neck’s bands, which was evident in this case. The court officials, including the court clerks, wore a form of uniform. They all wore sky-blue shirt and navy blue trouser. For the lawyers, because they appear before a judge who is dressed in a robe, they should also be in a robe. Hence, all the lawyers present were in robes. The female attorneys were in professional suits, either skirt or trouser. The male defendant wore a black business like suit, white shirt, a tie, and black shoes. A female defendant wore a blue professional dress and high heeled black shoes. One male member of the audience was dressed in a blue suit, light blue shirt, and black shoes. A lady among the audience was dressed in a professional skirt suit.

There were different verbal and non-verbal cues to indicate relationships. For example, there was a group in the audience, possibly related to the defendant in some way, who kept uttering approval or disappointment when they thought the case was going in a positive way. The relationship between the members of the audience was indicated by their exchange of verbal and non-verbal gestures. Whenever the lawyer representing the defendant got a breakthrough supporting his case, they nodded with approval, and some even dared to clap silently. Any time the defendant failed to respond well to a question asked by the plaintiff lawyer, you could clearly read their disappointment.

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Before the judge makes a decision on the case, various interactions take place. A lawyer represents the defendant, and it is the lawyer who does much of the speaking on behalf of the client. However, the defendant has a chance to speak when being questioned or defending him/herself. The defense attorney asks the defendant to take the stand for the questioning. The defense lawyer and lawyer representing the plaintiff question the defendant before the decision is made. The judge does not speak directly to the defendant, but in all the cases, through the attorney. There are instances where the attorneys are asked to approach the bench to speak with the judge. The judge also breaks the sessions to take a break, after which everyone enters back into the court. After listening to the two sides and the jury, the decision is finally made.

The “Ritual” Processes of the Court

On entering the courtroom, everyone can be seated, but once the judge enters the room, every person is expected to stand until they are signaled to sit. An announcement is made by the bailiff stating, “All rise. The Court of Maine is now in session, the Honorable Judge Jamey presiding” (Work 1, para 2). Everyone sits once the judge is seated on the bench. The same procedure is followed when the proceedings end.

One knows the proceedings have started when the bailiff calls the day’s calendar. On calling the “docket,” the bailiff utters these words, “Your Honor, today’s case is The People of the state of Maine v. Mr. Driller” (Work 1, para 2). The judge is the one who asks the legal representatives of the two sides whether they are prepared to start the trial. If the lawyers are prepared to begin the trial, they are asked to present their opening statements. The opening statement involves the lawyers telling the court their sides of what was revealed in the court. However, the statements by the lawyers do not amount to evidence. They simply present their version of whatever they want to convince the court of what happened.

The Plaintiff/Prosecution attorney begins by introducing oneself to present their statements. The introduction could go something like “May it please the court and ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my name is Mark Peters, counsel for the Prosecution in this action” (Work 1, para 2). It is the attorney representing the plaintiff who begins to present the statement. The lawyer is basically informing the jury and judging what his client expects by the time the trial ends. During the presentation of the statement, the lawyer doing this is standing and facing the jury, probably to convince them. He appeared to be directly speaking to them, although he also faced the other people present in the case, including the audience. The lawyer kept looking at or pointing to the plaintiff, uttering the words, “my client.”

After the Prosecution attorney has given his opening statement, the Defendant/Defense attorney takes the floor to give her opening statement. The statement is given to show the jury and the judge why the Defendant should not be held guilty. Like the Prosecution attorney, the Defense attorney will direct the statement to the jury. Thus, the attorney kept on referring to the jury members and pointing or referring to the defendant as “my client.”

The witnesses are expected to give their accounts of the events that conspired, beginning with those supporting the plaintiff.  The calling of the witnesses appeared to take a chronological strategy in the entire story. The prosecution attorney or the plaintiff uses direct examination. The witnesses on the side of the defendant are called to the stand to give their testimony. The relevant evidence is presented during this stage of the proceedings.

The closing arguments are also given in the same order as the opening statements. The Plaintiff/Prosecution gave the closing arguments first, followed by the Defendant/Defense attorney. In one of the cases, the Defendant/Defense rebutted the Plaintiff/Prosecution’s closing statement. After the arguments were presented, the judge allowed time for the jury to move out for a private deliberation before they could come in and give their decision on the paper. Though they make the decision, it is the judge who announces it. Sentencing by the judge is then given.

The language used in the court is particular to the court, which means that it is not the everyday kind of English used in conversations. The language used in the court is understood by the players in the proceedings. In short, they understood each other based on the legal vocabulary being used. The language used in the court is ritualistic, which means that the same words would be heard on all visits. In this case, there was particular dialect markers used in the court.

As indicated earlier, the lawyers used different gestures when referring to their clients and speaking to the jury and the judge. In the greatest part of their submission, they were gazing directly to the person or persons to whom they directed them. For example, they would speak directly to the jury or the judge. Similarly, the judge directed his submissions either to the judge or the jury. There was the use of hand gestures during the proceedings. There were situations when the judge would bang gavel on the table to call the court to order. In most cases, the judge would stay silent as he listened to the submissions and would only speak to call the court to order or when directing someone to do something.

While these were rituals, I realized that not all cases went the same way. For example, a case that involved a defense attorney differed from where the defendant was allowed to represent himself. The differences, however, were not much because the proceedings were expected to move in the same direction unless the defendant pleaded guilty before the proceedings.

Courtroom Ethnography Assignment Part II

The Case of a Car Theft

B: All rise. [Everybody in the court stands.] Oneida County Court presently in session. Judge ____________ will preside.

J: Calls the case of the People of the State of Maine vs. Mr. Driller. Are the two sides prepared?

PL: Ready, Your Honor.

DL: Ready, Your Honor.

J: May we hear the Prosecution’s opening statement.

PL: The case presented is that on April 13, 2017. Mr. Driller was seen driving a car belonging to my client. The car was earlier on reported missing by my client. The defendant was cited at a gas station before driving off to an unknown location. He was later arrested by the police at a roadblock after the photo of the vehicle was circulated. That will be all Your Honor.

J: May we hear the defense opening statement

DL: In this case Your Honor, I will try to prove that my client had not stolen the car, but instead had borrowed it from the plaintiff’s elder brother. My client was sure that the car, given to him, belonged to the plaintiff’s brother and was shocked to be stopped by the police on the account of the car having been stolen. That will be all Your Honor.

J: Let us now hear from the witnesses.

PL: We call the car’s owner.

[The witness is shown to the stand]

Clerk: Kindly stand and raise your right hand. Do you promise that the evidence you will be giving before the court is the truth, the entire truth and nothing but the truth?

P: I do.

Clerk: Kindly state your official names.

P: [Gives two names]

Clerk: please be seated

PL: [Stands up.] (To the plaintiff) where do you work?

P: I work in a Bank as a sales representative.

PL: Where do you reside?

P: 301 Augusta, Maine

PL: Were you at work on April 13th, 2017?

P: Yes, I was.

PL: Where was your car?

P: I had left it at home.

PL: Did you find it at home when you arrived from work?

Car Owner: No. It was not where I left it.

PL: Where were the car keys?

P: On a bedside table in my bedroom.

PL: Were they there when you came back?

P: No, they were also missing

PL: Did you report to the police?

P: Yes, I did.

PL: Had you given Mr. Driller the permission to take your car?

P: I hadn’t

PL: Thank you, That will be all.

J: Does the Defense wish to question the witness? PL: Not now, Your Honor.

J: The witness may leave the stand. [Witness walks back to the sit]. The defense may call another witness.

DL: The arresting officer, please [the officer walks to the stand.]

Clerk: [Repeats the swearing in of the witness]

Clerk: State your official names.

Officer: [Gives names.]

PL: [Stands up.] Where do you work?

Officer: The Maine Highway Patrol.

PL: Were you working on April 13th, 2017?

Officer: Yes. I was working in highway patrol.

PL: Did you get a call on missing Red Salon car?

Officer: Yes, I did.

PL: state the registration number?

Officer: 6CFJ824.

PL: Where did you arrest the driver?

Officer: At the Highway exit three going north.

PL: Do you see the man you arrested in the court?

Officer: Yes. [Points to the defendant.]

PL: On searching the car what did you find?

Officer: Car keys. [Keys are brought to the officer for identification]

PL: Are these the keys?

Officer: [Looks at the keys.] Yes.

PL: Your Honor [Hands the keys to the clerk for marking as an exhibit.]

J: Mark Exhibit 1

PL: That will be all.

J: Any questions for the witness by the defense?

DL: [Stands up.] Yes, Your Honor.

DL: when you stopped the driver, did he object?

Officer: No, he didn’t.

DL: So he did not act as a common car thief?

Officer: No.

DL:  Thank you. No more questions.

J: The witness is free to leave the stand.

PL: Your Honor, we rest our case.

J: Is the defense prepared?

DL: Yes, Your Honor. Mr. Driller, please.

[The defendant walks to the stand]

Clerk: [Repeats the swearing procedure]

Clerk: Tell the court your official names.

D: [Gives full names.]

Clerk: Kindly take a seat.

DL: Where were you on April 13th, 2017?

D: I was going down the Maine highway.

DL: Were you driving a red saloon car?

D: Yes.

DL: Kindly tell the court how you had obtained the car.

D: I went to my neighbor’s home and asked Mr. Ricky [the owner’s elder brother] if he could led me the car. He agreed and led me the keys from the house.

DL: What happened next?

S: I had been driving it for one hour before I was pulled over by an officer and arrested.

DL: That will be all. Thank you.

J: Any questions from the prosecution?

PL: Yes, How well do you know Mr. Driller?

D: He is my neighbor.

PL: How well do you know his brother?

D: he is my neighbor and a good friend.

DL: Thank you. That will be all.

J: Does the defense have any more witnesses?

DL: No. I rest my case for now.

[The witness leaves the stand]

PL: [Stands up.]

J: You can now give the final argument?

The judges and the defense attorneys are the main influencers of the dialogue. The witnesses are continually asked questions for the purpose of maintaining the conversation. The judge asks questions to guide the next course of action. The lawyers are asking questions to get evidence to support their side of the argument.

How Power is Constructed in the Courtroom


On visiting a courtroom, there are major observations that can be made, from the formality of the setting to the language spoken to the dialogues that takes place within the setting. There are various players involved in a court case, all with different roles and others in positions of influence and power over others. Basically, from the language and the general formality of the court, it becomes evident that they are created to make the judge all powerful, indicating “The Exalted One” (O’barr 82). Indeed, this is evident from the way he dressed, the position he sits in the courtroom, and the protection of the court officers. The importance of the judge is obvious, and those within the setting are always reminded on the same in every statement that is uttered, such as by using the title, “Your Honor.” The elements are important to remind the audience how power plays out within the court settings and who the holder of the power is. Looking at the elements, it is evident that the judge is simply placed in a position of almost absolute power.

The judge has various roles to play in a court of law. While the other players, including lawyers, could have an understanding of the law, the judge has a more powerful role, that of interpreting it to suit the context of a particular case. Through the court visits, it has become evident that the judge is the one who basically determines the flow of the hearings and the unfolding of the trials. Besides, the judges are the main decision makers in trials. Although they are supposed to give impartial judgments, this is a position of power because at the sentencing, even the ruling of the jury does not hold without the final decision of the judge (O’barr 87). Hence, the judge has the final word on the outcome of a court case. Given the position, it is no wonder that the judge is the most revered individual in the court. “The Your Honor” title is used in almost all statements that are directed towards the judge.

On entering the court, the very first contact with power is the fact that all the people in the courtroom have to stand the moment the judges enters the room and can only sit when he/she sits down. In fact, this indicates the subjugation or intimidating nature of the setting, even if the real intentions might be far from that (O’barr 72). A good example is in the use of the gavel that is banged on the table to bring the court to order. Tension characterizes the mood of the court even by those who are innocent. The tension is evident from the moment the judge enters the room. Although the people could be conversing before the judge enters the room, there are expectations of silence, lest, one is held responsible for the contempt of court. The judge can give orders to any person in the court. After all, the judge is responsible for directing the way things have to be done in the courtroom.

As the case proceeds, it becomes evident that the judge has the power that he/she can use even to intimate those acting within it. It is a setting where there is someone in power and someone whose freedom is in his/her hands. At that moment, for example, the defendant knows that any judgment can be made because the law confers the judge with the power to make the decision. The nature of the work of the judges is highly complicated and has the power entrenched within the constitution and other legal systems in the country. Also, the rules and regulations set out to regulate the working of the court confer the power on the judges (O’barr 124). More than most others in the country, the profession is awarded more power over those being served by the system. For instance, the relationship between the judge and the defendant is complicated, mostly because the penalty given for a crime depends on the judge.


The court is one of the most complex institutions in the country. From the outside all the way to the inside of the court, there is the characteristic reality of power being in play. The setting of the court, the judge, sitting on the bench and being separated and protected from the rest of the occupants, indicates the nature of authority that comes with the title. When the judge dressed in a robe enters the courtroom, there is an indication of the power that comes with his/her position. When he/she comes into the room, everyone stands until he/she sits and when the other actors start to speak, they keep on referring to him/her as “Your Honor.” The judges are dressed differently from any other person in the court, indicating that they are not in the same position with the rest. In fact, the title of the judge suggests an intimidating role which creates a great deal of tension among all those present, but mostly the defendant (s). 


Works Cited

O’barr, William M. Linguistic Evidence: Language, Power, and Strategy in the Courtroom. Elsevier, 2014.

Work, How Courts. “Steps in a Trial,” 2017. Available at http://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_education/resources/law_related_education_network/how_courts_work/cases_settling.html

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