Living By the Ruehls: Ohio Judge Sentences Attorney to Six Months for Swearing in Court

bildeJudge Robert Ruehlman clearly does not like swearing in his courtroom. Ruehlman recently sent two men — including an attorney — to jail for six months for using foul language. This is not unique, but Ruehlman’s punishment is grossly out of line with a reasonable sanction in such cases.

The first foul-language felon to fall into Ruehlman’s word web was Jamel Sechrest, an accused member of a gang called the “Taliband.” When Ruehlman delayed the trial until Feb. 2, he muttered “That’s (bleeping) bull (bleep).” Ruehlman then said paradoxically, “You don’t say bull (bleep) in the courtroom.” While that would seem to indicated that you can say Bull{bleep} in his courtroom, he sent Sechrest away for six months.

The next to fall into the web was attorney Michael Brautigam who was representing himself in a civil lawsuit against his condo association. The association was being represented by Cincinnati attorney Peter Koenig. After a hearing, Koenig and Brautigam turned to walk away from the judge and Brautigam called Koenig “a (bleeping) liar.”

Ruehlman again paradoxically asked if he used “f—ing” and said that you can’t say that in his courtroom. He sent Brautigam away for six months on contempt.

Ruehlman has the right idea but he is way out of line in the sentence. Such outbursts are known to occur and usually result in a day in jail or more commonly a fine. Six months is a ridiculous and abusive sentence, particularly for first-time offenders. After a witness received a fine for swearing over 70 times in New York — but of course that is New York.

hamilton-county-seal-color What is ironic is that, on his court page, Ruehlman explains his approach to conduct of counsel in his courtroom in the following section:

Courtroom Etiquette

I tend to be pretty liberal in my treatment of lawyers. During trials there is a relaxed atmosphere. You can approach the bench at any time, you can use projectors, power point or blackboards. You can approach the jury box without asking permission and I use a hands-off policy allowing the attorneys to try their case. You do not have to feel embarrassed about coming into my Courtroom when a trial is in progress. I tend to be pretty low-key.

While it is understood that attorneys should not swear in any court, it is not one of Judge Ruehlman’s stated “peeves.”

Pet Peeves/Expectations/Comments

The only time I get angry with attorneys during a trial is if they interrupt me or if they fail to follow my rulings or after a ruling, they continue to argue. As far as punctuality, I never get angry at attorneys for being late as long as they call the Courtroom and tell my staff that they will be late and also give a valid reason. I know attorneys are busy and I am not the only judge. Attorneys who are late should tell us where they are going to be and indicate a time when they are going to arrive. Do not just show up late without any explanation.

Concerning courtroom appearance, I never get concerned with what people wear in my Courtroom.

His only other public “passion” is underwater photography. He seems to use better judgment in the subject of his underwater photos and contempt sanctions.

Judges will sometimes exceed their authority or judgment when faced with such clearly unprofessional or uncivil conduct. A few years ago, a Florida judge not only ordered the arrest of a woman who swore at him on an elevator, but proceeded to try the matter himself as both the complaining witness and judge.

Linda Louise Kress was making a commotion at the courthouse in Florida when she stepped on the same elevator as Circuit Court for Lee County Judge William J. Nelson. Here is how the appellate court described it.

When she joined Judge Nelson in the elevator compartment and continued her tirade, he asked her to desist. The judge stated that he did not appreciate her behavior in that he had been dealing with similar situations all day, and he really did not need to hear it from her as well, certainly not while trapped in an elevator with her.

Employing a vulgarity, Kress demanded to know who he was. He informed her that he was Judge Nelson, and according to the judge’s recollection, she told him to go “bite yourself.” This all occurred in the presence of a bailiff, a security guard, and a number of other unidentified people. Rather than employing other means at his disposal to quell Kress’s disturbing conduct, the judge had a bailiff take Kress into custody, ordered her jailed overnight, and conducted a contempt hearing the following day. Judge Nelson began the hearing the next day by telling Kress, “You just happened to get on the elevator with the wrong fellow.”

The appellate court wisely threw out the sanction — noting that the judge was not acting in his official capacity at the time and failed to give Kress the basic protections of a defendant. Under Nelson’s interpretation, any offensive conduct in his presence in or out of court is a penal matter.

For the full Ruehlman story, click here.

11 thoughts on “Living By the Ruehls: Ohio Judge Sentences Attorney to Six Months for Swearing in Court”

  1. Ryan, Cohen v. California is not a precedent for this situation. In Cohen v. California, the Supreme Court found a First Amendment right to wear a jacket that said “Fuck the draft” in a courthouse corridor. The decision does not confer any rights inside a courtroom while a trial is taking place. Also, the First Amendment generally applies equally to written and spoken words.

  2. I think that the excessiveness of these sentences demonstrate that Ruehlman is unfit to be a judge. But I do not think that his repeating the swear words is paradoxical or is evidence of hypocrisy or even of inconsistency. He objects to swear words presumably in an effort to keep the discourse in his courtroom civil; i.e., he wants to prevent swearing. And he did not swear; he used the words to refer to them — he quoted them. Suppose that a witness testified that the defendant had called his victim a “fucking asshole” before he shot him. Surely Ruehlman would not have punished the witness for repeating the words that he’d heard.

  3. I’d be willing to bet that neither of these two will see the inside of a cell for much longer. cohen v california has some pretty clear precedent for this type of situation. Of course that case was concerning the display of a vulgarity, not a verbalization.

    Given how close I live to this courtroom, I might just have to make a visit during winter break to catch some of his antics.

  4. This reminds me of a case several years ago where a Jesuit priest was put in prison for 5 years for contempt of court, merely for comparing the court to nazi’s.

    These contempt laws give the judge an omnipotence above and beyond due process and essentially grant the judge totalitarian authority over anyone entering their courtroom.

    I think it’s time to reign in the contempt of court power of judges so that decent citizens are not thrown into cages like animals.

  5. Goshdarnit, Judge Ruehlman’s contempt for the lawyer reminds me of the Jerry Reed song “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot”

    “He let my friend go free and he *throwed* the book at me…”

  6. Doggoneit is an offensive objectification of canines that will not be tolerated in any court of law. However, dagnabbit is perfectly permissible. Thank you for asking.

  7. Legally speaking, are doggoneit, dagnabbit, SOB, and other euphemisms considered cussin’ in a court of law?

    If so, Geewillikers!

    My high regard for the criminal justice (?) system keeps fallin’.

    I think Prof T’s blogspot has jaded my view of lawyers, judges et al. and I was one of the few who still respected lawyers…well some attorneys here are still okay, even the PI’s.

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