Style vs. Substance: What Transcripts Show
A recurring theme of appellate work, at least from my point of view, is noticing the extent to which courts and prosecutors (and sometimes even defense attorneys) treat perfectly reasonable arguments from defendants as being ludicrous, irrelevant and even offensive. Pro per motions filed by defendants, citing to exactly the relevant caselaw and constitutional provisions and amply supported by factual declarations, are often discussed by courts as if they were totally incomprehensible and utterly lacking in legal merit. Perfectly ordinary comments by defendants who take the stand to testify are met with a litany of abuse and recrimination, with a constant theme of such admonitions being that the defendant is “not answering the question.”
Meanwhile, prosecutors routinely file motions that get the law wrong, lack factual support, and are peppered with irrelevant ad hominem attacks. Gang experts take the stand and say almost whatever they want, about virtually any subject, and courts regard this testimony as entirely appropriate. And judges make legal rulings that appear to be pulled out of thin air, completely divorced the relevant jurisprudence, and with an analytical style that is no better than one sees in the most rambling pleadings of an incompetent pro per litigant.
What transcripts show, then, is a discouraging ongoing reality of our judicial system: that poor and marginalized defendants continue to be treated differently than individuals with more institutional clout and credibility, even when the substance of what those defendants are asserting is valid and even when, from a legal point of view, the defendants are actually in the right. Transcripts show that a lot of what goes on in the courtroom has to do with body language, with tone, and with demeanor, and that indigent defendants are routinely punished for not having the right style. A goal of our judicial system, or at least a goal of defense attorneys, should be to look past these irrelevant stylistic quirks and to focus on what really matters: the facts, the law, and the goal of doing real justice.