Lawyer Fined for Refusing to Answer 'Yes or No' Question in Court
'If you plan to have children, try not to have teenagers.'
That's my joke to friends, and it came to mind when I read about the debate between a judge and a lawyer over a "yes-or-no" question.
You see, my kids sometimes have trouble answering straightforward questions. It's because they don't want to be cornered -- like attorney William Hermesmeyer, who had to hear it from the judge and the court of appeals.
It went down this way in a Texas trial court:
Yes or No?
THE COURT: I'm not sure I understand how that answered my question. I've asked the question again. Would you please answer the question either yes or no?
MR. HERMESMEYER: Your Honor, I would stand on what I previously said. Thank you.
THE COURT: Mr. Hermesmeyer, you get very close to being held in contempt of court. Would you answer my question?
MR. HERMESMEYER: I have no further response, your Honor.
Really? Which part of "yes or no" did the lawyer not understand? Was there a problem with the accent?
After more back-and-forth, the judge took out the rule book -- and maybe a calculator -- to sanction the lawyer $500. A local court rule says a judge may sanction an attorney for conduct "unbecoming a member of the bar and failure to comply with any order of the Court."
What He Said
On appeal, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. In evaluating the sanctions order, the appellate panel considered other instances when Hermesmeyer frustrated the trial judge.
The appeals court also weighed the lawyer's argument -- that he could not answer the judge's question accurately with a "yes" or a "no." However, the court said, that did not absolve him of refusing to answer or even explain his response.
"Perhaps the district court contributed to the difficulties, but an attorney must comply with court orders," the judges said in the unsigned opinion.
Silly as it seems, I'm a little happy this "yes or no" debate became a federal case. I'm going to cite it the next time my teenagers give me attitude.
- U.S. District Court, Northern District of Texas, Local Rule 57.8 (U.S. District Court)
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