I forget where I first heard this sage advice: do not mess with teachers in the classroom, judges in the courtroom or police in the streets. Now I am a lawyer and know all too well, do not disrespect judges in the courtroom. It only leads to trouble. One Houston lawyer with a large law firm, Littler Mendelson, was reminded of this after he filed suit over alleged civil rights violations. His client claimed the civil rights of her daughter were violated when a client tried to become a high school cheerleader.
The lawsuit was based on 42 USC Sec. 1983, a civil rights statute. The suit was dismissed. The plaintiff appealed. The plaintiff’s lawyer said unkind things about the lower court decision written by a Magistrate Judge. The court of appeals in a decision written by Judge Jerry Smith responded:
“Reduced to its essentials, this is nothing more than a dispute, fueled by a disgruntled cheerleader mom, over whether her daughter should have made the squad. It is a petty squabble, masquerading as a civil rights matter, that has no place in federal court or any other court.” He described the theory behind the suit as "flimsy." See ABA Bar Journal report.
It is very rare for an appellate judge to start out so critical. But, he did not end with that. He mentioned later in a footnote:
“Usually we do not comment on technical and grammatical errors, because anyone can make such an occasional mistake, but here the miscues are so egregious and obvious that an average fourth grader would have avoided most of them. For example, the word ‘principals’ should have been “principles.’ The word ‘vacatur’ is misspelled. The subject and verb are not in agreement in one of the sentences, which has a singular subject (‘incompetence’) and a plural verb (‘are’).”
That is as personal an attack as occurs at the appellate level. Judge Smith was clearly perturbed. Magistrate Judges are not appointed by the President. Appointed federal judges are known as "Article III" judges. Magistrate Judges are hired by the appointed Article III judges and essentially serve as assistants to the appointed judges. The Magistrate Judges typically hear motions and some trials. They serve for ten years and are generally well-respected jurists in their own right.
The judge was criticising the statement by the Littler Mendelson lawyer about the Magistrate Judge. The lawyer had said that because he is not an Article III judge, his "incompetence in applying general principals [sic] of law are [sic] extraordinary." Judge Smith said this sentence was unlcear, but it seemed to be making an unjustified attack on the magistrate judge. The plaintiff’s lawyer attacked the Magistrate Judge. Judge Smith responded.
I tell all my clients and anyone else interested that going to court is much like a drama presentation in a theater, everything we do is watched, scrutinized and analyzed. All trial lawyers know this. but, on this day, I think this one lawyer from one mega firm forgot this important lesson.