December 3, 2011
RI Federal Court
PROVIDENCE — It was day three of the federal trial of some police officers accused in a lawsuit, and the lawyers were at odds. It was time, on the issue of how to pose a question to a witness, to face the music. And hear some, too. As the lawyers approached the bench, orchestral music wafted through courtroom speakers and, not unlike a conductor striding from the stage, Judge William E. Smith walked out to meet the lawyers in sidebar, trying to get everyone in tune. At least five times that day, the music sounded as judge and legal teams shuffled back and forth in U.S. District Court. Instruments performed sweeping, lush harmonies. The judge and lawyers talked, hand motions in abundance, but to the observer theirs was a silent film with only a soundtrack.
Every time they headed back to the defense and plaintiff tables, the music stopped and questioning resumed.
The music is there to shield the sidebar discussion from the ears of jurors and witnesses, Smith said in an interview.
Anyone who’s sat in at a state District Court hearing or Superior Court trial has heard whispers or more as legal teams and judge strategize in not-quite dulcet tones. In federal courtrooms, besides music, the options can include white noise, a sound played to mask other sounds in a space, during the sidebars, or bench conferences . In some federal courtrooms, in which sidebar conversations are deemed not audible, no sound is played.
Smith had served a year or so in the other federal court building across the street.
“I couldn’t stand that white noise,” he said, and wondered if it might bother jurors.
So about eight years ago, Smith said, he decided to opt for playing music, typically classical. “It’s just a little more pleasant.”
While he prefers to keep sidebars to a minimum for the jury’s sake, Smith said, he has never had one of the conferences run so long that music ran out. He recalled a longer trial where the music — “I think it was Vivaldi” — had become repetitive, so some Van Morrison and a little Bob Dylan filled in during sidebars.
To shroud the conversation, he said, “Van Morrison was better than Dylan because Van Morrison has some orchestra in it.”
But instrumental music is the norm.
“Classical is probably the best choice,” Smith said, “because it fills the space better than almost any other kind of music you could find.” Other music, he said, may have gaps where nothing is being played, allowing some sidebar conversation to be heard. And, he said, given differing tastes, he felt people would largely be amenable to classical.
Classical is a catch-all term for music including several eras: 17th-century baroque pieces, such as those written by J.S. Bach; 18th-century music by composers including Mozart; 19th-century romantic works by the likes of Beethoven, Brahms and Chopin; and 20th-century music by composers such as Shostakovich and Britten.
Outside of work, Smith said, he likes music of his generation and some that his children have introduced him to, bands such as Wilco and The Decemberists. Growing up, he tried his hand at the guitar but said he didn’t think he was so good at it; he had friends who played better.
In Smith’s courtroom, a clerk uses a high-tech console to activate everything from case exhibits on video screens to audio for testimony. She also cues up the music selection.
Smith said the court building had its sound system redone in the last year. Speakers are embedded in wood in various locations.
Don’t expect a television legal-drama moment where an ominous soundtrack accompanies a perfectly scripted prosecutor delivering a speech which, in a real courtroom, might not get past the word “objection.” And there’s no way to make a bootleg recording; cell phones and recording devices are not allowed in federal courtrooms. The music lasts for what’s far from concert length.
But Smith said he’s heard enough of the current choices, so the soundtrack will change again soon. A clerk is bringing in new music. firstname.lastname@example.org
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