Louisville Courier Journal
Published 11:06 AM EST Dec 11, 2019
In the Oscar-nominated 1979 courtroom drama "And Justice for All," a judge furiously tries to gavel Al Pacino’s character to order as he screams: "You’re out of order! You’re out of order! This whole trial is out of order!"
It’s a scene you’re not likely to see in Kentucky’s courtrooms these days, because the gavel — once the very symbol of judicial authority — has gone the way of the powdered wig.
Judges still have them. Friends and family give them to new judges like fathers get socks and ugly neckties. But state and federal judges in Kentucky say them use them rarely, if at all.
They are "like dinosaurs — long gone," said Ned Pillersdorf, who is married to a retired judge and has practiced for 35 years.
These days, judges say smacking a gavel at an unruly lawyer or litigant is too imperious and smacks of arrogance, like wagging a finger at an unruly child.
Judge Phillip Shepherd said he’s never used a gavel in 13 years on the Franklin Circuit Court. He said his mentor and hero, the late U.S. District Judge Edward Johnstone, for whom Shepherd clerked, liked to say that any judge "worth his or her salt should command the respect of all in the courtroom without the aid of a gavel."
Judge Joe Weber, who sits in Jeffersonville, Indiana, in Clark Circuit Court, says he collects gavels but doesn’t use them in court.
"I’ve got enough Irish in me that I can be as loud as a gavel," he said.
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Experts say the use of gavels as a tool of judges has declined over the decades in part because courtrooms — and galleries — are smaller and because judges have microphones.
Judges also say their bailiff's sidearm is a more effective deterrent to misbehavior than a wooden hammer and sounding block.
Neither federal nor state judges in Kentucky are formally issued gavels when they go on the bench
Federal judges must buy them with their own money, which also is the case with their robe, said David Sellers, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
The Kentucky court system will buy them for judges — for $85.50 each — but only on request. Its sole provider, LexTro, last year only provided about six to eight gavels, owner Mark Monell says.
The state has bought only about four per year since 2007.
Other gavel-makers have diversified in part because of the declining demand for courtroom gavels.
The Gavel Factory in Laconia, New Hampshire, for example, now offers acrylic gavels, apple gavels, miniature gavels, pencil gavels, giant gavels, gavel key chains and chocolate ceremonial gavels.
But while gavel-banging has become less common, it is not extinct, said Ed Cohen, a spokesman for the National Judicial College in Reno, Nevada, which trains judges from Kentucky and other states.
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Jefferson Circuit Judge Barry Willett said that in October, when a criminal defendant cursed at him, he pounded his gavel so hard that he dented the bench.
"It worked," Willett said. "The courtroom went silent and I got control again."
Willett said he once gaveled attorney Teddy Gordon for saying "F--- you" to a prosecutor.
U.S. District Judge Karen Caldwell gaveled to order hyperaggressive Louisville criminal defense attorney Steve Romines during a 2012 trial for "questioning a witness too aggressively for her liking," Romines recalled. (His client was convicted of fraud and money laundering and sentenced to 25 years in prison.)
Romines said years before that, when he cited evidence during a trial that Judge Ernest Jasmin had excluded, the fiery former prosecutor gaveled him to silence and warned he was “this close” to finding him in contempt.
"I said, 'Go ahead and find me in contempt because I am feeling contemptuous towards you,'" Romines recalled.
He got his wish. Jasmin found him in contempt.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Wine, who served on the circuit bench from 1991 to 2006, said he's used his gavel only twice.
The first was in a divorce trial when the wife started arguing with the husband's new girlfriend, who was in the gallery.
"I smacked the gavel down, and the silence was immediate," Wine said.
The second instance was when he was about to revoke a defendant’s sentence, and his wife started to move into the well of the courtroom.
"I hit the bench with the gavel, but it was too late,” he recalled. "She hit a probation officer with an umbrella. I gave her a day in jail and made her apologize to the officer.”
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Jefferson Circuit Judge McKay Chauvin said he uses his gavel ironically, to punctuate his jokes: "That will be the order of the court!” he says.
He said he's used it only once in earnest, when a litigant representing himself stood up and said some “very inappropriate, very untrue, but very, very derogatory things about me.”
When he told her to stop and she did it again, he grabbed the gavel and pounded it.
“It was like a bomb had gone off in the courtroom,” Chauvin remembered. "It was so loud it scared everyone so bad they dropped whatever they were holding, spilled whatever they were drinking, and fell off of whatever they were sitting on. I don’t plan on ever doing that again.”
Veteran lawyers such as Gary Weiss, who was admitted to practice in 1969, said gavel-swinging judges were commonplace in the 1970s.
He said when he used a couple of swear words in a closing argument, Paul Keith, a very formal circuit judge, gaveled his hammer and said, "'In chambers, please.'
“He said he was going to put me in jail, and I was s---ing bricks,” recalled Weiss, then a young lawyer. “Then he started laughing. He was just kidding.”
Former prosecutor Joe Gutmann, who now teaches at Central High School, said Judge Curtis Witten gaveled him once so hard that the gavel went flying in the air.
And attorney Scott C. Cox said that when he was a federal prosecutor more than 30 years ago — and tried to get in evidence that Judge Johnstone had ordered out of bounds — Johnstone "cracked it once and came across the bench toward me, his finger pointing."
"He scared the crap out of me,” Cox recalled. “He was 6 foot, 4. And it startled me because he was usually such a nice guy.”
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But the last local judge to regularly employ a gavel is thought to be Geoffrey Morris, who retired from full-time judging in 2009. He said he used it to wake people, but mostly for fun.
Lawyers say he also would strike it to mark the end of every case.
But Morris said he did not use it one time when he had good cause to — when attorney Frank Mascagni — whom he warned he would fine $25 for each additional swear word he uttered, famously responded, "Your honor, is mother------ one word or two?"
“Frank was so wild I was surprised a judge didn’t gavel him in the head,” Weiss said.
Some lawyers say the use of the gavel was never as prevalent in real life was in movies and on TV.
Now, says Charles R. Simpson III, a senior U.S. District Court judge, who has never used one in 33 years on the bench, the gavel is more symbolic than an actual tool.
Chauvin says he hands his gavel to children when they visit the courtroom and he lets them sit on the bench and play judge.
“Interestingly — and sadly — the first thing they do is make a really mean face,” he said.
Then they bang the gavel.
Andrew Wolfson: 502-582-7189; [email protected]; Twitter: @adwolfson. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/andreww.
More information about gavels
- The origin of the word “gavel” — and its use in courtrooms — is a mystery. Some historians say gavels date back to 10th century Scandinavian mythology and represent the hammer of the god Thor, a patron of justice, and are a symbol of his might and authority. More common is the theory that they originated as mallets used by masons to knock stone in place and later used in Masonic lodges by the presiding officers as a symbol of authority.
- Gavels are not and never have been used in courts in Great Britain.
- The "Judge Barbie" 2019 “Career of the Year” doll comes with a gavel and sounding block.
- In Lorain, Ohio, a defendant named Christopher Collins had the audacity — and stupidity — to steal a gavel from a magistrate presiding over his small-claims case. The theft was captured on camera and Collins later pleaded no contest to theft, for which he was fined $250 and served 23 days in jail.
- In February, in a military court in Tunisia, defendant Adel Ghandri, 33, who was on trial for terrorism offenses, managed to grab the judge’s gavel and pound him in the head with it. Ghandri was convicted with several other defendants and sentenced to life in prison for attacks that killed 60 people, most of them tourists, in 2015. News accounts don’t mention if he received more time for gaveling the judge.