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A judge's view: What goes on in judges’ chambers

"Counsel, I want to see you back in chambers." We've all seen that happen on television. But it also happens in real courtrooms, and it probably appears a little mysterious to those who don't work within the system. So what does it really mean?...

Dale Harris
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“Counsel, I want to see you back in chambers.” We’ve all seen that happen on television. But it also happens in real courtrooms, and it probably appears a little mysterious to those who don’t work within the system. So what does it really mean?
Part of the mystery is the word itself.  “Chambers” sounds almost medieval. It’s nothing that interesting. In reality, “chambers” is just a fancy word for the judge’s office, where the attorneys and judge can talk informally.
The most common reason for a chambers discussion is so attorneys can give the judge a heads-up about something before going on the record.  Most of us judges do not appreciate getting blindsided by something unusual, and the attorneys know it.  For example, a prosecutor might warn a judge that a victim plans to give an emotionally charged statement at sentencing or that a large number of family members will be in attendance.  A defense attorney might be concerned that the client is going to have difficulty providing the facts for a guilty plea and offer suggestions on how to handle the inquiry. If a plea agreement is controversial, the lawyers might want to run it past the judge to see if it is likely to be accepted.  Occasionally, in civil or family matters, the attorneys will privately ask a judge to encourage mediation or settlement options if their clients are digging in.
These conversations can be initiated by the judge as well.  I have asked to see counsel in chambers when I saw something to raise concerns about a party’s mental health but did not want to embarrass the person by asking without advance warning.
It is fairly common for the judge and lawyers to meet in chambers before trials to discuss logistics and scheduling. It also is standard practice to meet at the close of evidence to finalize jury instructions, which can be an unnecessarily tedious process to do on the record.  In rare cases, a judge will call the attorneys back to chambers to express displeasure with their behavior in court.  Those conversations usually end with, “The next time I have to talk about this, it’ll be on the record (or in front of the jury).”  Most attorneys get the message and correct their behavior.
One of my favorite stories from my military career was when a Marine judge ordered a chambers conference in a case handled by one of my colleagues.  When the attorneys arrived in the colonel’s office, he had removed all of the chairs except his own, leaving little doubt about the tone of the conversation.
A chambers conference cannot be used as a substitute for what is required to be a public hearing. Judges will summarize in open court whatever was discussed during any previous chambers conference and give the attorneys the opportunity to put their arguments on the record. This guarantees transparency in the process and hopefully removes any mystery about what really happened back in chambers.

Dale Harris is a 6th Judicial District judge in the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth. 

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