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Dear Matthew Alice:

Any time you see judges on TV they're always whamming away on their desks with gavels. I've never ever seen a real judge use one. Do real judges ever use their gavels? And if they don't, why do they own them?

-- Court Watcher, San Diego

(This is a golden oldie from the M.A. mailbag, at least from the stuff that passed screening by the staff bomb-sniffing dogs. We're filling in while Grandma and the elves are away at the big Yreka Macaroni and Cheese Bake-off.)

Last time I checked, life was not a made-for-TV movie. I know reality bites by comparison, but we'll just have to live with that. In the meantime, most day-to-day proceedings in a courtroom probably wouldn't score highly with Nielsen families and would be axed from the schedule in mid-season. Not even Nancy Grace could whip an audience to a frenzy, given most of what goes on. But to get to the truth in this particular matter, I sent questionnaires to several dozen Municipal and Superior Court judges here in town asking about their gavel habits: Do they own one? Have they ever used one? Just what the heck is going on here?

From the tone of their answers, you could say the gavel is like an appendix on the great alimentary canal of justice. An idle appendage. A vestige of the early days of British courtrooms, like powdered wigs. And just about as useful, except to TV directors.

The 30 judges who responded were virtually unanimous in saying they have never used their gavels. Since they represent nearly 200 years of combined experience on the bench, I think we have a trend here. Only two had actually used their gavels. In the first instance, it was used for slightly snide dramatic effect. The judge called a ten-minute recess, rose, and headed for chambers. Despite these clues that there was an official pause in the proceedings, one attorney complained that he couldn�t tell that a recess had been called, so for the remainder of the trial the judge accompanied his recess calls with a whap of the gavel for the lawyer's benefit. In the second instance, a witness just couldn't seem to shut up, even after being told to, so the judge resorted to her gavel to make the point a little clearer.

About 15 percent of judges surveyed didn't even own a gavel. And here we find our second basic truth. Judges don�t buy their own gavels, they get them as gifts. The judicial equivalent of ugly ties and cheap cologne, the inevitable thoughtful presents from proud friends and relatives. Most judges seem to stow their gavels in chambers or leave them on the bench to get lost under stacks of files and papers. Some keep them at home.

Asked why judges have gavels at all, aside from the predictable gifts, must jurists are stumped for an answer. Gavels make handy paperweights, or you might crack walnuts with them, some suggested.

One judge summed up the situation by declaring that his bailiff's sidearm is more effective at keeping order in the courtroom than any gavel. Besides, he admitted, if he owned a gavel, he might be tempted occasionally to throw it at "deserving attorneys" or to "induce certain witnesses to be more candid in their testimony."

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