Friday, January 26, 2001

Judge's calls for order help maintain court's solemn role

        Order in the court.

        Those words are sacred to Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Niehaus.

        He believes they allow us to live in a nation of laws, fairly applied with justice for all.

        And that's why the judge exploded in anger this week when disorder broke out in his courtroom.

        I wish there were more judges like him, more people willing to speak out and call for order.

        On Monday, Judge Niehaus denied a request to increase or revoke the bail of Tony Ringer. The owner of a downtown barber shop stands accused of killing Cassandra Betts and her unborn child.

[photo] Outbursts related to accused killer Tony Ringer's case led Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Niehaus to post the rules for demeanor.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        As soon as the judge ruled, applause broke out in Courtroom 520. Some of the barber's supporters smacked their hands together near the ears and faces of the victims' friends and relatives.

        “I thought it was an attempt to intimidate the victims' people,” the judge told me later.

        “It pushed a passion button with me. And I just went: Boom!”

        Judge Niehaus shot to his feet. Face red with anger, neck muscles ready to pop, he let the noisy spectators have it.

        “Let me tell you,” he bellowed, “that throughout these proceedings, if somebody plays games like this, you will do 30 days.”

        Then, he reminded them where they were.

        “This is not a bar.

        “It's not entertainment.

        “It's a court of law.”

        The judge's heated words and their tone deserve a round of applause. (But not in his courtroom, of course.)

        He had every reason to be outraged. Unruly behavior shouldn't take place in a court of law and can't be tolerated. It's about time someone called for order in a society that's often out of order.

        Judge Niehaus made the call in a voice filled with passion. Emotion like that rarely surfaces today. So, I went to see him to discover its source.

        Tempered by nearly 22 years on the bench, his passion comes from a sense of fairness, a gift for compassion given to him by his mother and father.

        We spoke on Wednesday in the judge's chambers at the Hamilton County Courthouse.

        Earlier that morning, Tony Ringer had returned to Courtroom 520. Spectators entering the room encountered a white message board just inside the door. On the board, Judge Niehaus had written — in red — the rules for courtroom behavior.

        “By entering the courtroom spectators agree to not talk, clap, cheer or otherwise disrupt the proceedings.”

        He spelled out the consequences: “ ... if you violate the demeanor code you will be found in contempt and sentenced to 30 days in the Justice Center.”

        Just above his signature, he added:

        “This is a solemn court of law — not a TV courtroom.”

        The spectators got the message. Silence returned to Courtroom 520.

        Judge Niehaus wondered why he had to write out the rules. “Is it because of TV court shows like Judge Judy, where the judge says things that would land me in front of the grievance committee, where the opposing sides yell at each other?

        “That's not real.

        “That's not going to happen in this court.”

        He is not being petty by calling for order. An easy-going, plain-spoken judge, he is no tyrant in robes.

        “This is not for me, Rich Niehaus. This is not for Judge Niehaus,” he said. “This must be done for the system, to ensure everyone gets a fair trial, without interruption.”

        When he first arrived on the bench in 1979, the judge vowed to maintain his courtroom as “a rational, solemn place where the truth is found.”

        He keeps his vow by remembering lessons he learned from his parents. His father, Maurice Niehaus, was “a Hamilton County judge off and on for 20 years who never tolerated any disrespect to the court.”

        His mother, Catherine Niehaus, “was a 5-foot, 1-inch flying fury.” A teacher and social worker who passed away in 1991, she would not put up with rude behavior.

        “My mother would have never let me act up like those people did in my courtroom,” he said. “At home, we learned to behave. Sit still. Do not act rowdy. Speak softly. You learned to do that in public, too.”

        Not everyone had Catherine Niehaus for a mom. People yell at each other inside libraries. They yack on cell phones during movies and plays. They go to church in cutoffs with beeping pagers clipped to their belts.

        Such behavior makes Judge Niehaus' courtroom code of conduct stand out.

        “This,” he said, “is the last bastion in our society where people are expected to behave.”

        Judge Niehaus has high expectations. And he should keep them right where they are. Expect less and you'll get it.

        Expect more and people will have to learn how to measure up. Or get used to eating jail food for a month.

       Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.


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