The courtroom is not supposed to be a violent place. After all, our modern system of justice where parties resolve their disputes before an impartial third party (the judge) and/or a jury of their peers was intended to replace trial by combat-in which parties settled their differences by fighting it out (usually to the death). For most of us, the closest we’ve come to seeing trial by combat is our television sets, watching “Game of Thrones” as Tyrion Lannister faces accusations against him by having a champion face off on his behalf in mortal combat (twice, with mixed results).
As civilized as we may think ourselves to be now, that’s not to say that parties haven’t at least tried to evoke the concept of trial by combat. In a 1983 case before Delaware’s Court of Chancery, the defendant Freedom Church of Revelation responded to a motion for judgment on the pleadings with a motion for trial by combat to the death. Not surprisingly, the court was not amused and admonished the defendant that “challenge of trial by combat to death is not a form of relief this Court, or any court in this country, would or could authorize. Dueling is a crime and defendant is therefore cautioned against such further requests for unlawful relief.” Even merry old England doesn’t care much for the ancient right to trial by combat anymore.
In 2002, 60 year-old mechanic Leon Humphreys tried to contest a 25 pound fine for a minor traffic offense by invoking trial by combat. Humphreys pled not guilty and then challenged the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) to select a champion for a fight to the death with “samurai swords, Ghurka knives, or heavy hammers.” The court magistrates spared the DVLA the hassle of choosing a champion, opting instead to deny the motion, find Humphreys guilty, and fine him 200 pounds with 100 pounds court costs.
Of course, there are those who try to bring combat back to the courtroom itself. I’m not talking about litigant-on-litigant battling in a kind of “Thunderdome” match up (“Two men enter-one man leaves”). No, I’m talking about lawyer-on-judge or judge-on-lawyer violence. For example, Brevard County (Florida) Judge John C. Murphy mixed it up in June 2014 just outside his courtroom with assistant public defender Andrew J. Weinstock. In a courtroom video that went viral, Weinstock can be seen at the podium refusing to waive his client’s right to a speedy trial, and Judge Murphy is heard saying “If you want to fight, let’s go out back, and I’ll just beat your ass.” The two then exit the courtroom into a hallway off-camera, at which point a scuffle can be heard.
According to Weinstock, Judge Murphy did strike him in the head. Not surprisingly, following the incident Judge Murphy (a retired, decorated Army Reserve colonel who served in Afghanistan) went into anger management counseling. He took a four-week leave of absence, and Chief Judge John Harris of Florida’s 18th Judicial Circuit Court issued a statement condemning the incident, saying “People come to court seeking justice and a peaceful resolution to their conflicts and they have a right to expect a much higher standard of behavior from our judges than was exhibited in court yesterday.”
The fallout from the incident, however, is not over; the matter is being investigated by the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission, the disciplinary body that investigates judicial misconduct. In addition, Mr. Weinstock resigned from the public defender’s office in protest after Judge Murphy was allowed to return to the bench. Maybe it’s time for a rematch, this time on pay-per-view.
At least in the U.S., we don’t have lawyers going after judges with flyswatters. That was the case recently in Kazakhstan, where 35 year-old lawyer Evgeniy Tankov didn’t take too kindly to one judge’s ruling. In yet another video gone viral, Tankov is seen approaching the judge with a flyswatter and slapping the judge with it three times. The opposing attorney, 39 year-old Artem Ibragilov, then goes over and punches Tankov. Seconds later, the judge is off the bench and physically grappling with Tankov as well. Not surprisingly, Tankov has been barred from the practice of law and faces up to 10 years in prison for his unusual attack on the judge.
Yes, the courtroom can be a violent place, even long after “trial by combat.”
 McNatt v. Richards, Court of Chancery of Delaware, Civ. Action No. 6987 (decided Mar. 28, 1983). Hardly shocking, the pro se defendant’s motion for trial by combat followed pleadings that the court described as a “rambling tirade which asserts various preposterous allegations and claims.”