When Debra Nelson, the Florida state court judge in the trial of George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin, was named as the replacement for the first judge that Zimmerman’s defense team had removed, she was described positively as a tough-minded, no-nonsense jurist, one who had been appointed to the bench by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Legal observers who knew of Nelson’s judicial reputation said that Zimmerman’s lawyers might one day be sorry they’d gotten rid of Judge Kenneth Lester, ending up with Judge Nelson as a replacement through a random lottery selection.
It turns out that those in the know may have been right.
As Judge Nelson has shown her tough judicial mien throughout the trial, the haters didn’t waste anytime revising their assessments, calling her a snippy, quick-temperered Chris Farley doppelgänger. You can always count on a woman’s critics, in almost any profession, to suggest that she’s ugly (and that her mother dresses her funny) when they disagree with her decisions.
No one has yet called Nelson, who was also a former federal court arbitrator, a “scold,” but I figure that’s just a matter of time, especially as the defense attorneys continue to behave in ways that force Judge Nelson to reprimand them for less-than-stellar courtroom behavior.
Those who feel that the defense team isn’t getting a fair shake have criticized her for not taking pity on the attorneys because they’re working long hours. Some are even claiming that she walked out of the courtroom in the middle of arguments, but if you watch the video, it’s actually the defense team that keeps arguing after the court was clearly called to be in recess. Not a good way to impress the judge.
Interestingly, it’s that sort of attorney conduct that Judge Nelson’s critics aren’t focusing on as they try to make a public opinion case for Zimmerman. Maybe they’ve forgotten that under Florida’s Guidelines for Professional Conduct, in the section dedicated to Trial Conduct and Courtroom Decorum, it states:
“A lawyer always should interact with parties, counsel, witnesses, jurors, or prospective jurors, court personnel, and judges with courtesy and civility, and should avoid undignified or discourteous conduct that is degrading to the court or the proceedings.”
Trust me, it is never a good thing when a judge has to “remind” a lawyer of the rules of conduct, because that means you’re on the verge of getting yourself removed from the case, being held in contempt or, depending on the behavior, being disbarred. Even this morning, as the trial was coming to a close, the live-tweets from the courtroom were clear evidence that Zimmerman attorney Don West didn’t believe that civility or adhering to the rules of courtroom decorum were doing any good for his client:
Judge is scolding [Don] West for disregarding rules of conduct in the courtroom. #Zimmermantrial
— TJ Holmes (@tjholmes) July 11, 2013
Judge to West: you continue to disagree after this court issues a ruling. #Zimmermantrial
— TJ Holmes (@tjholmes) July 11, 2013
West is no newbie. He obviously knows that judges — and this judge in particular — demand courteous and civil conduct, and some level of deference. When a judge issues a ruling, there is never a good reason to keep arguing. That’s what the appeals process is for. It’s a fine line between being a zealous advocate for your client and behaving in a way that could be considered contempt of court, but given some of the defense team behavior during the trial, it certainly feels like someone has at least put their toes on the wrong side of that line.
So I wonder — are Zimmerman’s attorneys, and West in particular, engaging in questionable courtroom behavior on purpose to give him a chance at an appeal for a new trial? That idea isn’t as crazy as it sounds. That opening statement ‘knock knock’ joke alone, that West told in seriously questionable taste and trial strategy, will probably be included in the first paragraph of any Zimmerman appeal if he is found guilty on any of the counts against him.
So I’d suggest that the Judge Nelson naysayers take a step back and examine whose conduct during this trial has really been questionable.
Joanne Bamberger is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Broad Side. She was formerly known around these internet parts as PunditMom, but now she is trying to be herself. She is the author of Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America (an Amazon.com bestseller and now available in E-book form!). She was recently awarded the Campaigns & Elections Magazine/CampaignTech 2013 Advocacy Innovator Award for her research and writing on the power and influence of women online. Joanne is a “recovering lawyer,” but she is still well-versed in her litigator skills and courtroom practices.