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The Courthouse and the Courtroom

THE COURTHOUSEThe Courthouse


A courthouse is literally the home of the court. Courthouses in most counties are in the county seat, with additional offices located offsite in many larger cities or more populous areas. The location of a particular courthouse is commonly found in the local telephone directory, near the front where government agencies and offices are listed.

Judges conduct their duties in the courthouse. Judges' chambers, or offices, and courtrooms are located in the courthouse; in addition, a courthouse may include administrative offices.

Federal courts are located throughout districts of the United States, and are called “district courts.” Each district court is located in a courthouse building owned by the federal government which includes Judges' chambers, courtrooms, and administrative offices. If the court has special divisions, the chambers, courtrooms, and offices for these may be located in the same building or in a separate courthouse.

Courthouses are protected by security procedures. Commonly, visitors must pass through a metal detector; firearms and other weapons are strictly forbidden. Courthouses in more populous areas, or in areas where instances of crime are elevated, may have more than one security checkpoint.

Courthouses differ regarding other rules, but rules should be clearly posted near the entrance. For example, most courthouses request that cellular telephones be muted for the duration of one's visit.

The Courtroom

The courtroom is the room in the courthouse where a trial takes place, either before a judge (bench trial) or before a jury (jury trial). Depending on where a courthouse is located an how recently it was built, style varies from traditional (wood paneling, high ceilings) to more modern.

A courtroom is divided into two sections by a barrier called a “bar.” At the back of the courtroom, nearest the entrance doors and before the bar, is a "gallery" or seating for spectators. This is often open to the public, although some trials may be “closed” for various reasons and spectators may be limited or not allowed at all.

The main action happens beyond the bar. The focal point of a courtroom is theBENCH, a raised desk behind which the judge (or panel of judges) sits. Judges typically where black robes; use of the iconic gavel is rare, but some judges continue to use one. On the wall behind the judge, there will be a seal of the jurisdiction of the court, as well as a United States flag and a state flag if appropriate.

Next to the judge's bench is the witness stand, an enclosed seat where a witness sits while testifying (responding to questions from the plaintiff or defendant, or their attorneys if applicable). There is a desk for the court clerk, who is responsible for swearing in witnesses (traditionally, a witness was sworn in with a bible; today a bible is optional, and a witness may opt instead to affirm their honesty).

At a separate desk sits the court reporter. The court reporter records an exact, word-for-word transcript of all that is said and done at trial; this may be done via a stenography machine, video recording, or voice recording.

The bailiff stands against a wall in the courtroom during proceedings. The bailiff's main duty is to ensure there is order in the courtroom, and to provide immediate intervention in case a problem occurs. The bailiff may also escort parties or witnesses into and out of the courtroom.

Tables for the plaintiff, defendant, and their lawyers face the judge's bench. Often, a podium is set up facing the bench at which lawyers (or parties, if they are representing themselves) stand when they address the court.

A jury box is located at one side of a courtroom to accommodate juries at a jury trial. Not all trials require a jury; those that do commonly include twelve jurors, although some states allow, upon parties' agreement, a reduced number (usually six or eight). The jury box is an enclosed area, and juror sit in assigned seats therein.

Court Rules and Manners

Common courtesy always applies in court, and specific courts may have special rules to which parties must adhere. Always applicable are:

  • Suitable Attire: do not wear anything too short, too tight, too revealing, or otherwise potentially offensive
  • Supervision of Children: some courts may have childcare facilities; if not, supervise children carefully or do not bring them to court at all
  • Courtesy and Respect: the judge(s) should be addressed as “Your Honor” and spoken to respectfully; attorneys, jury members, court staff, and other parties should be treated courteously at all times
  • Be sure to ask for permission to approach the judge when he is sitting at the bench. This is a pet peeve of most judges and by asking permission to approach the bench you will instantly receive respect from the judge. In fact, most attorneys have long ago forgotten this particular courtesy.
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