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Court Etiquette 101: Try Not to Gag During Direct

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on January 27, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A witness's testimony may make you want to scoff, roll your eyes, or stick out your tongue, but try to keep the theatrics under control in court. That's the lesson from Florida this week, after a Palm Beach public defender was reprimanded for pretending to gag while a prosecutor questioned an informant in a murder trial.

The court didn't buy the attorney's argument that her fake gag was just "a confidential attorney/client nonverbal communication" meant to display her skepticism towards the testimony.

Not the Time for a Gag Order

The offending gag took place during the murder trial of Jamal Smith, during the testimony of Frederick Cobia, who the Palm Beach Post describes as a "notorious jailhouse snitch." As Cobia was on the stand being questioned by prosecutors, Smith's attorney, Assistant Public Defender Elizabeth Ramsey, leaned over to her client, laughed, and stuck her finger down her through, pretending to gag.

The sheriff's deputy spotted Ramsey's theatrics and reported them to the judge, who in turn filed a complaint against her. While Ramsey admitted that her motion was "perhaps in bad taste," she argued that she was simply trying to communicate, nonverbally, with her client.

The judge who reviewed the complaint, Judge Peter Blanc, wasn't convinced. In a 15-page order issued Tuesday, he said that any such message could have been "easily communicated verbally or by the written word."

"Instead, it appears from the record that [Ramsey's] intent was to communicate her personal disdain and disrespect for Cobia which has no place in a courtroom setting and certainly not during Cobia's direct examination by the State," Judge Blanc said.

He placed Ramsey on probation and ordered her to appear before the Florida Board of Governors for a public reprimand, to take five hours of ethics training, and to write a letter of apology to the trial judge who filed the complaint against her.

Ramsey, however, will not have to sit in the corner or write "I will not gag in court" 100 times on the classroom chalkboard. Nor will she be suspended from practice, as a special prosecutor had recommended.

An Uncommon Proceeding

If the disciplinary procedure in this case sounds unusual to you, that's because it is. While the state bar would normally handle ethics complaints against an attorney, this dispute was handled by a judge, under a procedure that hasn't been used in 20 years, according to the Palm Beach Post. (The trial judge also pursued criminal contempt charges against Ramsey, but those were dismissed.)

Even the punishment is a bit unusual. Ramsey told the Sun Sentinel that she doesn't know for sure when her public reprimand will be, but assumes that it will take place at a meeting of the Florida Bar leaders. As for her probation, it's also unclear what that entails.

"Do I meet with someone each week and tell them I didn't disrespect anybody?" Ramsey asked. "I don't know."

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