Under Analysis: Creative punishments for cell phone use in court ? Ring! Ring! DON'T answer that

 Lisa Henderson-Newlin, The Levison Group


It’s one of those things you pray never happens: receiving the phone call that could change everything. One ring and your world could be turned upside down. Who’s on the other end of the call? 

Who cares? The judge most certainly doesn’t.

We’ve all been in a courtroom at some point when an unfortunate lawyer’s cell phone rings, halting proceedings and drawing stares from attorneys and witnesses alike. Even more embarrassing than the call itself is the “I’m Sexy And I Know It” ringtone. 

Wait. Maybe that’s just mine.

The ring reverberates in a room fallen silent save the movements of a few people rocking to the beat of the catchy tune and the gasps of others who know what punishment is in store for the offender.

Will it be contempt? Jail time? Community service? That’s at the discretion of the judge, but if I were in charge, I’d make the punishments for a ringing cell phone in court a lot more interesting.

I wouldn’t have just one preferred penalty for the guilty. Rather, I’d have several proposed punishments and would let the people of the courtroom decide how retribution would best be served. 

After all, isn’t that what a democracy is all about? 

Here’s a few of my options.

1. Subject the offender to a full day of watching children’s television shows.

Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? You’re about to find out, as you and SpongeBob SquarePants are going to become quite close over the next several hours. His friend the starfish isn’t any less annoying either, so don’t get your hopes up there.

2. Burden the wrongdoer with the task of understanding all hearsay rules and exceptions.

Perhaps when the rebel has mastered the art of hearsay, he could teach it to me. If someone can do this, he’s a better attorney than I am. Then again, that’s not a very high bar, so maybe someone could complete this task without much difficulty. 

Did someone say bar? Maybe the task could be completed at a bar. 

3. Force the delinquent to listen to someone else try to explain the hearsay rules and exceptions without rolling his eyes or falling asleep.

On second thought, this might be too harsh of a penalty. It’s a task that couldn’t be done in law school and it probably can’t be done by a seasoned barrister. It’s just not possible. 

4. Require the malefactor to watch a marathon of Matlock reruns and point out every legal inaccuracy.

As if a show about a criminal attorney who never has a guilty client isn’t already unbelievable, the show throws even more fiction our way. From Matlock basically testifying himself with each of his questions to the unanimous not-guilty verdict at the end of each episode, this program is pure fantasy. 

Finding the inaccuracies and inconsistencies in this show might take as long as the hearsay assignment, but at least you can eat popcorn while you complete this one. Plus, Andy Griffith looks great in seersucker suits, so at least the experience will be pleasant. 

5. Give the troublemaker a legal research assignment and don’t let him use online resources to find the answer.

Can this even be done anymore? I’m not sure you can conduct legal research without fancy online tools that charge a small fortune for each keystroke. Isn’t that part of the excitement of the research project? Trying to guess how much your firm will be charged for the use of search tools used to find one simple answer?

I suppose it’s better than the alternative, which requires book research and walking around a law library trying not to dash the dreams of law students who think every case will involve a constitutional issue. Between the cardio workout and the squatting and kneeling required for this task, the offender is most likely not dressed for it, which will make the activity all the more daunting.

Perhaps the implementation of these harsh punishments will encourage lawyers to turn off their phones before stepping into the courtroom, or at least encourage them to get more creative with their downloaded ringtones.

Am I evil for wishing these penalties on fellow attorneys who don’t know how to mute their phones? Probably, but I’m okay with that. I am a lawyer after all. Doesn’t that stigma come with the job description?


Lisa Henderson-Newlin is a member of the law firm McAnany Van Cleave and Phillips. Contact Under Analysis by email at comments@levisongroup.com.

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