Vail Daily column: What we call judges |

Vail Daily column: What we call judges

Rohn K. Robbins
Vail Law

Have you been following the Oscar Pistorius case?

Nah, me neither.

But I can’t help but pick up snippets here and there. CNN is often on the radio or the TV when I’m pounding on the treadmill.

One thing that’s stuck out to me — besides what in the U.S. would be considered unconscionable badgering of the witnesses by the prosecution — is how those in the courtroom refer to the judge who, in this instance, is a woman. The preferred appellation in Pretoria, South Africa, apparently, is “m’lady” which sounds a little strange to this American attorney’s ear.

But it got me to thinking, as I am wont to do in idle time; what do we call judges and why?

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There are judges, justices, chief justices, presiding judges, chief judges, senior judges, justices of the peace and magistrates, all of which are “honorable”. Oh my!

OK, first things first. A judge is a public official who hears and decides cases before a court of law. He or she passes sentences on people and rules in civil cases. A magistrate is a civil officer who has power to administer and enforce the law. He or she has limited judicial authority. He or she may be a justice of the peace or court police. He or she has minor authority to enforce or administer the law. A judge, on the other hand, governs or rules. In the United States federal courts, magistrate judges are appointed to assist United States district court judges in the performance of their duties.

That behind us, what is the difference between a justice and a judge?

Judges preside over trials and hear oral arguments in civil cases and misdemeanor and felony criminal justice cases. Justices, on the other hand, populate state and federal appeals courts and supreme courts. Although an appeals court justice is often called an appeals court judge. Go figure.

Just when you think you’ve got it — OK, judges are at the trial level and justices deal with appeals — up pops “justices” of the peace which are more like magistrates than judges. Yikes; one can pull one’s hair out.

OK, but the thesis of this column is what we call judges — not what the judge’s titles actually are — when we are before them in a courtroom.


There are a couple of fail safes; if the be-robed person sitting in front of you at the head of the courtroom is a judge, it’s always safe to call her “judge” when addressing her. Similarly, if the bloke before you is a magistrate, “magistrate” will do. A justice must always, if you’re calling him by his title, be referred to as “justice” (or “Justice Fill-in-the-Last-Name”). Unless, of course, he or she is the chief justice, in which case, respect alone dictates that “chief justice” would be a better fit.

You’ll note I said, “If you’re calling him by his title.” That was not unintended. While it is never OK to call him by his first name or even his last (unless preceded by the honorific “justice”), or — horrors! — by a casual, “hey you,” “bub,” or some similar faux pas, it is perfectly alright to call him “your honor” which is my own preferred default mode.

This has a couple of advantages. First, you don’t have to parse out whether they are a judge, a justice, a magistrate or something else. Second, I think it simply sounds more respectful and, always agree with them or not, judges, justices, etc., deserve respect — this is not an easy job. Third, I just don’t like the blunt way “judge” falls on the ear. Although there is nothing wrong with it, and lots of lawyers call the judge “judge,” it feels awkward and abrupt to me. I like “your honor” just fine.


But how and why did we come to call a judge “your honor?” There are, after all, lots of “honorable” folks and lots of folks that are, when introduced, referred to as “the honorable So-and-So.” Legislators, for example, are generally referred to as “the honorable Senator Such-and-Such.

The answer is in two parts. First, we refer to judges as “your honor” out of respect for the judge and also out of respect for the office he or she holds. In a sense, we call the judge “your honor” because of the veneration we hold for the law and the importance of upholding it in civil society. The social glue embrittles without just application of the law, and it is in the hands of judges that we leave this sacred task.

Second, we call judges “your honor” because we always have. Tradition is not an insubstantial part of the law, particularly when you consider that much of “law” is built on “precedent” which necessarily grasps into the past. Maybe it’s worth considering, too, that most times anyway, judges are, in fact, honorable people.

While it may feel odd to those coming into court for the first time to hear a judge called “your honor” or to address the judge that way on your own, to me, if feels as natural as calling my best pal by the nickname that I’ve pinned on him.

Think of this: If the judge in the Pistorius case was a man, he’d be addressed as “m’lord.” In Canada, he or she might be called “your worship.” In Italy, as Amanda Knox learned all too well, it would be “signor presidente della corte” or “mister president of the court,” which seems like sort of a mouthful.

You see, “your honor” feels just fine. It’s short and sweet and to the point. It’s sort of a Goldilocks thing; to me, at least, it feels “just right.”

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddision, Tharp and Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at either of his email addresses, or

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