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The judge generally sits behind a raised desk, known as the bench. Behind the judge are the great seal of the jurisdiction and the flags of the appropriate federal and state governments. Judges usually wear a plain black robe (a requirement in many jurisdictions). An exception was the late U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who broke tradition by adorning his robe with four gold stripes on each sleeve. (Rehnquist reportedly said that he had been inspired to add the stripes by his having seen such stripes worn by the character of the judge, in a local production of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operatic spoof of English jurisprudence, Trial by Jury.)
Adjacent to the bench are the witness stand and the desks where the court clerk and the court reporter sit. The courtroom is divided into two parts by a barrier known as the bar. The bar may be an actual railing, or an imaginary barrier. The bailiff stands (or sits) against one wall and keeps order in the courtroom.
On one side is the judge's bench, the tables for the plaintiff, the defendant, and their respective counsel, and a separate group of seats known as the jury box where the jury sits (in jurisdictions that allow for jury trials). Apart from the parties to the case and any witnesses, only the lawyers can literally pass the bar (court personnel and jury members usually enter through separate doors), and this is the reason why the term "the bar" has come to refer to the legal profession as a whole (see bar association). There is usually a podium or lectern between the two tables where the lawyers may stand when they argue their case before the judge. Although American courtrooms traditionally had docks for the accused, like Commonwealth courtrooms, these gradually fell out of use. Defendants argued that they were prejudicial and interfered with the accused's right to counsel.
There is usually an open space between the bench and the counsel tables, because of the court clerk and court reporter's tables in front of the bench and the jury box on the side. This space is called the well. It is extremely disrespectful to the court for persons who are not court employees to directly "traverse the well" without permission—that is, to walk directly towards the bench across the well—and some courts have rules expressly forbidding this. Instead, if documents need to be given to or taken from the judge, attorneys are normally expected to approach the court clerk or bailiff, who acts as an intermediary. During trials, attorneys will ask the court's permission to traverse the well or "approach the bench" for "sidebar" conferences with the judge.
On the other side of the bar is the gallery, with benches and chairs for the general public. In some cases the gallery is separated from the rest of the room by bulletproof glass.
All of the above applies only to trial courts. Appellate courts in the United States are not finders of fact, so they do not use juries or receive evidence into the record; that is the trial court's job. Therefore, in an appellate court, there is neither a witness stand nor a jury box, and the bench is much larger to accommodate multiple judges or justices.
The walls are often partially or completely wood-paneled. This is a matter of style and tradition, but some jurisdictions have elected to construct courtrooms with a more "modern" appearance. Some courtroom settings are little more than a closed circuit television camera transmitting the proceedings to a correctional facility elsewhere in order to protect the court from violent defendants who view the proceedings on television within a jail conference room and are allowed duplex communications with the judge and other officers of the court. Many courtrooms are equipped with a speaker system where the judge can toggle a switch to generate white noise during sidebar conversations with the attorneys so that the jury and spectators cannot hear what is being discussed off-record.
England and Wales
Courts vary considerably in their layout, which depends a great deal on the history of the building and the practicalities of its use. While some courts are wood panelled, most are not. Depending on the layout of the room, a claimant may sit on either the right or left in a civil court, just as the prosecution may sit on either side (usually the opposite side to the jury) in a criminal court.
In a criminal court, where the defendant was previously held in custody, the defendant will usually be escorted by members of the security firm that has the contract to serve that court. In rare circumstances in civil trials a bailiff or someone else charged to keep order may be present (for example if a tenant who is due to be evicted for violent behaviour arrives in court drunk).
Advocates usually speak standing up, but from where they were seated. There is rarely any space for them to move in any case.
All appellate courts are capable of hearing evidence (and also to be finders of fact), for example where there is an allegation of bias in the lower court, or where fresh evidence is adduced to persuade the court to allow a retrial. In those cases witness evidence may be necessary and many appellate courts have witness stands.
Flags are rarely seen in English courts. It is most common for the Royal Coat of Arms to be placed above and behind the judge, or presiding magistrates, although there are exceptions to this. For example, in the City of London magistrates' court a sword stands vertically behind the judge which is flanked by the arms of the City and the Crown.
As in other countries, the judge or sheriff sits on the bench. Directly below the bench is the clerk's station which usually has a computer to allow the clerk to get on with Court Disposal work during proceedings.
Directly in front of the clerk is the well of court which has a semi-circular table at which all the advocates sit during proceedings. The Procurator Fiscal or Advocate Depute always sits in the seat at the right of the clerk during criminal proceedings.
Behind the well of the court is the dock in which the accused will sit during proceedings. Dependent on the style of the courtroom, the jury box will either be on the right or left hand side of the well of the court. Scotland is unique in the western world in that it has 15 jurors.
Usually to the right or left of the bench (again dependent on style and always directly opposite the jury) slightly raised and facing forward is the stand where any witness who is called will give evidence. The stand is designed so that any solicitor examining a witness as well as the judge/sheriff may get a good view of the testimony. At the far side of the courtroom directly opposite the jury box and behind the stand are seats for journalists who are attached to the court and the court social worker. Seats for members of the public are the back of the courtroom.
There is no court reporter in Scotland; normal summary cases are simply minuted by the clerk indicating the disposal. If the case is a solemn (more serious) case involving a jury or if the case has a sexual element then proceedings will be tape recorded which is done under the supervision of the clerk.
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- Young v. Callahan, 700 F.2d 32 (1st Cir. 1983).
- See "Traversing 'Well'," Local Rule 3.94 of the Los Angeles Superior Court.
- In re Zeth S., 31 Cal. 4th 396, 2 Cal. Rptr. 3d 683, 73 P.3d 541 (2003).