Decorum, Or Else

There was a time when every well-dressed man wore a hat, often a fedora but sometimes as wacky as a bowler or even a boater.  Hats fell out of fashion, and were rarely seen.  They’ve come back, mostly resembling the caps worn by baseball players and drivers of John Deere tractors on farms, though sometimes worn slightly askew, sometimes backward, with or without price tags, and are frequently worn by young men.

This means the old rule that gentlemen removed their hats indoors was again in play.  The difference is that hat wearers today don’t ascribe to the old rule, and indeed see little wrong with keeping their lid on at all times.  Old-timers see this as a critical lapse of etiquette.  New-timers see this as, well, nothing of any consequence at all.

Courts, however, had a fairly uniform rule when it came to hats.  They were not permitted in courtrooms.  Neither cowboys nor millionaires were allowed to wear hats in a courtroom.  There was no hard reason for it other than maintaining a semblance of dignity and formality, the atmosphere that courts hoped to maintain.  The rule existed back when fedoras were favored.  It existed when hats were scarce It will exists today.

The only exception is for hats worn by police, largely because they are comrades in arms of court officers and comrades don’t tell comrades what to do, especially when police are armed and higher on the law enforcement pecking order.  Issuing an order to a police officer to remove his hat, a hat that was part of his required uniform even when it wasn’t fashionable or a hat worn to keep his “high and dry” warm in cold weather, was bad form, even worse than hat-wearing indoors.

Lawyers largely accept and adhere to the rules of courtroom etiquette.  Indeed, we rarely give a thought to why they exist or whether they make any sense.  It’s just part of the job, dressing in the lawyer uniform and uttering the lawyerly words expected of us.  Why call the black-robed guy “your honor,” for example.  It’s less that we maintain a personal belief that the fellow is particularly honorable than we employ the usual honorarium honorific.

We are there to fight battles, but screwing with the rules of etiquette isn’t among the battles we care to fight.  More to the point, we accept for the purpose of maintaining an orderly process that these rules exist, and play along.  It helps our ability to do our job as well.  Imagine if audience members were allowed to hoot and holler if they didn’t like what we said.  We don’t want to be disrupted, so we enjoy the benefit of the atmosphere of formality.  It’s not that it always helps us, but that the alternative would be worse.

But what happened to  Pete Eyre in Keene, New Hampshire, via his friend Radley, forces me to think long and hard.

Eyre should have removed his hat when he was first told to do so.  His response when told of the court policy, “I didn’t sign that policy,” was childish and wrong.  As we wander through life, we are not entitled to have individual approval over the way others run things.  When Pete walked into that courtroom, he understood (or at least should have) that he subjected himself to the rules of the court.

Granted, his political view may be that individuals should not be subject to the unilateral fiat of the government, and that this was an act of civil disobedience mandated by a pointless policy that government has no authority to impose.  Perhaps, but if so, then what followed is what he asked for.  If this is the sort of fight he wishes to make, so be it.

However, the issue doesn’t end here.  In a split second, the court officer went from right, if not silly, to wrong by ordering him to leave and then following his words by “or you will be arrested.”  This was immediately followed by the officer wrestling Eyre to the ground and cuffing him.  Eyre continues to sound off about his hat being his property, an irrelevant point since the demand was to remove it the courtroom.

The gist of the “Free Pete” is that wearing a hat is not a crime.  Of course it isn’t.  Refusing to adhere to the rules of decorum in a courtroom can be a crime, however, as can failure to follow a lawful order.  That some feel differently isn’t much of an argument; we don’t each get to decide what rules to follow and what rules we think are ridiculous, and therefore can be ignored.

The problem here is that the resort to force, to the assertion of physical control, to arrest, comes far too quickly and easily.  The state has armed men to make us behave as they demand, but they should only be used as a last resort and only when necessary to protect a more substantial interest.  Wearing a hat?  Not worthy of force, and certainly not worthy of arrest.  Tell him to remove the hat or leave.  Tell him a few times.  So what if Pete Eyre’s “argument” that he never agreed to the “no hats” policy is asinine.  Behaving badly isn’t a crime either.

The near-immediate resort to force, to the ultimate power of arrest, for something so trivial and, frankly, a rule of etiquette and decorum rather than one that protects anyone from any actual harm, is what pushes people, like Eyre, to engage in silly resistance and refuse to acknowledge a middle ground of relative order so that bigger, more important battles can be fought.  There are critical fights to be had in this world, and foolish ones do little by distract from them.

The bottom like of Eyre’s fight is that Pete Eyre doesn’t think he should have to take his hat off in court.  He believes that he gets to make his own rules, to adhere to whatever code he personally finds acceptable.  Anarchy or narcissism, I can’t say, but Eyre is wrong.  Without some general order, nothing gets done, neither good nor bad.  For people who have things to achieve beyond fighting for Eyre’s right to behave like a three year old, this is just a sideshow that makes the main event that much more difficult to accomplish.

Free Pete?  Sure.  His “offense” was ridiculous, as his conduct was beyond churlish.  But if there was only one person to be freed today, Pete Eyre wouldn’t be my choice.  There are far more worthy people, who have suffered far greater indignities with far less reason, that deserve our concern.

Free Pete? The officer who managed to take a dopey problem that could and should have been ably handled without anyone getting touched, cuffed and arrested was an incompetent buffoon whose conduct breeds the attitude in people like Pete Eyre to refuse to follow any rules but his own.  Since the officer acted with the authority of the state behind him, he’s more wrong than Eyre.  He too doesn’t get to behave poorly because he can’t think of any better way to perform his job.

If you don’t want to remove your hat in the courtroom, then stay out.  If you’re told to remove your hat by the bailiff, then take it off.  It’s a silly rule, perhaps, but real people suffer because of what happens in courtrooms.  Get a grip and some perspective.  There are plenty of silly rules in courtrooms, but they mean nothing compared to the harm done by serious rules.  If you feel the need to take a stand, then focus on the serious harm and let the trivial go.

9 thoughts on “Decorum, Or Else

  1. Steve Magas

    I’m surprised the officer bothered to actually TOUCH Pete. To quote a police officer I sued, now the police chief of the very small burg I sued, in an excessive force case, “Tasering em’s the best way…” to handle folks what don’t cooperate…

  2. Aaron G

    I’d suspect the reason that cops wear hats inside the courtroom goes back to a tradition they took from the military.

    Soldiers take off their covers indoors, with one exception: when they bear arms. The tradition has gone by the wayside while deployed or in a simulated field environment, but it still applies in garrison.

    I doubt it has anything to do with the law enforcement packing order, but I suppose I could be wrong.

  3. SHG

    Most police officers remove their hats in courtrooms.  The pecking order has to do with court officers deference toward police officers.  Spend some time in a courtroom, and it will save you from the effort of having to speculate.

  4. SHG

    Nothing is quicker and easier than a well placed taser. But best to use when there’s no one videotaping.

  5. Ernie Menard

    I agree, let the trivial go.

    However, our perceptions of trivial may differ.

    I believe that the only legal way that this man could have been taken into custody for the wearing of the hat was if a judge had held the man in contempt for failing to remove it. I didn’t hear that a judge threatened to hold the guy in contempt, or held the guy in contempt, for failing to remove his hat. Only at that point would I remove a hat were I wearing one. I would not remove my hat merely because an officer of the court in his ‘officer-of-the-court costume,’ or the police officer in his ‘police- officer costume’ told me to. I’d of likely stated that my head is cold and I’ll remove it when the judge walks in.

    A policy isn’t a rule, and a rule isn’t a law. The courtroom isn’t a church where attendance, at least in the United States, is voluntary.

    And if you’re a lawyer that is bothered by the wearing of a hat in a courtroom then you ought to just wait outside the room until the judge holds the guy in contempt. The real lawyers, the ones that are there for legal issues, will hold your seat for you.

  6. pml

    What I find incredable is no one took the camera away from the guy that was filming.

    Truthfully I think this was a setup, notice the guy with the camera had it on and hidden before the officer spoke to the guilty party.

  7. SHG

    Excellent point. I had thought about why they allowed videotaping in the courtroom, another obvious violation of the rules, but you are right that the video was on before anything happened with Eyre, and without anything happening in the courtroom otherwise to justify videotaping.

  8. David

    ‘It’s less that we maintain a personal belief that the fellow is particularly honorable than we employ the usual honorarium.’

    I think you mean ‘honorific’. A judge who allowed you to employ an honorarium would not be very honorable at all!

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