What to Expect – Going to Court
If you’ve never been to court before, it can seem scary. I will try to de-mystify the experience and hopefully alleviate your fear.
What should I wear?
Men should wear a button down shirt, dress slacks and nice shoes. If you wish, you can wear a suit. Dressing properly – like you were going to a job interview or important event – shows the judge that you respect the process and acknowledge the importance of the occasion.
Women should wear a dress, nice skirt or slacks, and a conservative blouse or sweater. If you wish, you can wear a suit. Skip the super short skirt or dress, and sexy tops. Again, think about how you would want to present yourself if you were going on a job interview.
Arriving at the courthouse
Get there early. You never know if there will be traffic, bad weather or anything else that might cause a delay. Confirm in advance where you will meet your attorney. Ask the legal assistant about where to park.
Everyone has to go through security, similar to the airport, except you don’t have to take off your shoes. No guns, knives, mace, or other potential weapons are allowed. Sometimes lighters are confiscated.
Belts will have to be removed and pockets emptied. Usually, you don’t have to remove jewelry.
What to bring and not to bring with you
Most courthouses in New Mexico do NOT allow you to bring your cell phone tablet, lap top or any recording device into the building, so leave it in your vehicle. Even if you want your laptop or tablet to take notes, if the device has the capability of making recordings, you will not be allowed to bring in into the building. If you think you may want to take notes, bring a legal pad and pen.
Do NOT bring children with you. They will not be allowed into the courtroom and there is no one to watch them in the hallways. Minor children of the parties are definitely not allowed in the courtroom and judges can get pretty upset if one parent brings the children to try to make the other parent look bad.
Do NOT bring water, coffee, soda or any other drink with you inside the building. There are water fountains near the restrooms, and a pitcher of water and cups in the courtrooms.
Do NOT chew gum or other food in the courtroom.
In Albuquerque and some other courthouses, the parties and their attorneys must “sign in” to let the court personnel know when they arrive. This simply means checking for your case on the docket of cases to be heard by a particular judge on a given day, and then putting your initials next to your name and the time you signed in.
If you are there for a domestic violence hearing, the clerk will tell you where to sit. The parties have separate waiting areas.
Inside the courtroom
You and your attorney will go into the courtroom together. If there is another case being heard when you enter the room, stop talking so as not to disturb the proceedings.
Most courtrooms have a similar layout. When you first enter the room, the judge’s desk – called a “bench” – is in front of you at the back of the room. Near the bench is the witness stand – a chair, microphone and some kind of desk – where people testify. On the other side of the judge’s bench is another desk where the court monitor works. The monitor is a court employee. Sometimes a bailiff or Sheriff’s deputy stays in the courtroom, especially if there are safety concerns.
In the middle part of the courtroom are tables and chairs for the lawyers and parties. There are microphones at each table. Sometimes there is a podium between, or a little in front of, theses tables where the lawyers stand when addressing the judge and asking questions of the witnesses.
There are benches in the back of the courtroom for spectators and for witnesses to sit after they have testified. If you brought friends or family for support, they would sit on these benches.
If you get nervous
The judge, court staff and lawyers all understand that parties and witnesses get nervous. It’s perfectly okay if you feel that way. If you need a drink of water or tissue, just ask. If you need to use the restroom, let your lawyer know and she’ll request a recess as soon as possible.
Some people twist paperclips to control their nerves. Others doodle on paper. Do whatever you need to do to stay calm and focused, but not in a disruptive way.
Body language is very important
Whether you are sitting at the lawyer’s table or on the witness stand, the judge and lawyers pay attention to the body language of parties and witnesses. For the judge, it’s one way of “assessing credibility” – the truthfulness or believability of what a person says. That means it is very important for you to sit up straight, pay attention to what’s going on, and be respectful of the process.
Don’t roll your eyes, make rude noises or gestures, shout out “s/he’s lying”, laugh inappropriately, bounce around in your chair, or argue back to the judge. Know that the judge has the power to hold you in contempt of court and possibly throw you in jail if your behavior becomes too disruptive. Needless to say, you hurt your own case severely if you are found in contempt of court for your behavior.
After the hearing ends
I have lost count of the number of times a client has asked me after the hearing ends, “So, what just happened?” Even if you paid close attention to what went on in the courtroom, it’s common to not fully understand everything or remember what all happened. Because this is your case and your life, ask the lawyer to explain it again – what happened, what key decisions the judge made, and what happens next. You will likely have more questions a day or two after the hearing, so follow up with your lawyer on your questions until you fully understand it all.