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Judge George Hutton

Judge George Hutton, like most everyone in Los Angeles at that time, was from some place cold, namely Minnesota. Hutton received his law degree from the University of Minnesota and was admitted to the bar at age 23. He spent the next four years employed by a railroad, prior to heading for California. The next nine years were in private practice in Santa Monica, handling matters throughout southern California. During that time Hutton gained a reputation for his knowledge in estate law, and the laws involving western water rights, an issue on which the disputes are endless. He was elected to the California Superior Court in 1906 at the age of 42.

Hutton did not practice criminal law while in private practice, yet there’s little doubt he was the most educated person in his courtroom. Nor was there a doubt as to his strong sense of fairness as to everyone who appeared before him. He also was a judge who carefully studied lawyers’ arguments, even when that meant working long hours in the evenings or entire weekends.

As noted by one contemporary biographer, Judge Hutton possessed the necessary “ability, dignity, firmness and courage, and is clear and direct in his statements; his decisions are well considered and he has by these qualities and his uniform courtesy and patience earned the good will and confidence of the members of Los Angeles bar; while on the bench he is quiet and reserved and conducts his court with dignity. In chambers he is genial, cordial and approachable and in private life social and friendly.”  With “[b]lack hair, streaked with silver, thin, ascetic features,” Judge Hutton was a handsome man who had the right presence to command respect. He would be tested in ways he never imagined.

The trial transcript reveals that his biggest challenge was courtroom management.

Judge Hutton was not a newcomer to the bench. Though there is no record of how many criminal trials he presided over, he appeared to have had sufficient experience and the right temperament for such a lengthy, combative trial. Yet somehow, for some reason, things got out of control. So much so, that the four lawyers -Rogers & Appel and Fredericks & Ford- were trying the case all at once. When that happens not only does the court record become confused, it can confuse the jurors.

It became routine for one lawyer to make a motion (raise a legal point) to Hutton; before he could finish making his statement, he was interrupted by a second lawyer from the opposition; he was promptly talked over by a third lawyer who was co-counsel with the attorney who began things; in turn, he was cut in on by the fourth lawyer, co-counsel for the opposition. The trial transcript brings to mind a tag-team wrestling match staged for television by the World Wrestling Federation a century later. The biggest difference was that Judge Hutton was seated above the fray, rather than mingling on the mat with the combatants. All that said, the lawyers’ behavior toward one another was unacceptable; at times, beyond the pale. Judge Hutton didn’t seem to notice.

For more than five centuries in the Anglo-Saxon legal tradition, it’s the judge who has had responsibility for maintaining decorum in the courtroom. He/she does that by showing courtesy and respect to everyone– Hutton did do that well – and equally important, the judge must require the same of everyone else who plays a role in the court’s proceedings.

Nonetheless, the trial transcript reveals that Judge Hutton failed to demand proper comportment from the four lawyers.  Too many times, he permitted the lawyers to disrespect one another. Too many times, he failed to shut down endless, acrimonious banter among the attorneys. Too many times, he neglected to reprimand counsel for their tumultuous outbursts, insults and interruptions of their adversary.

Worse still, Judge Hutton ignored the repeated requests by Ford and Fredericks to excuse the jurors while the legal disputes, and frequent insults, took their course. That was not a good thing. The record is replete with meandering legal arguments mixed with irrelevant comments, snide remarks by counsel toward one another. The lack of decorum between the lawyers, as permitted by Judge Hutton, could not have made a favorable impression upon the jurors. More importantly, as experienced trial judges will confirm, one never knows how the lawyers’ misbehavior may impact the jurors’ deliberations.

At the end of the day, what is certain is that the in every criminal trial the state has the burden of proof, and the burden is a heavy one, “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It is the highest standard of proof in any trial, sometimes referred to as “to a moral certainty.” the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt” is fraught with uncertainty.

Distractions during the prosecution’s presentation don’t help with the burden of proof. In short, unruly proceedings in a criminal trial rarely work to the state’s advantage. Judge Hutton showed no favoritism to either side, yet he failed to maintain the level of decorum required of a judge presiding at a jury trial.