The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Judge Benjamin J. Beaton of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky would prefer not to be known as "Your Honor." In a recent speech, Judge Beaton detailed his "guerilla campaign" to end the practice of referring to judges as "Your Honor." As he apparently remarks to lawyers in his courtroom "Counsel, enough with this 'Your Honor' stuff. Please just call me Judge."
From the speech:
As a descriptive matter, of course, "Your Honor" is aspirational at best. As a matter of basic English usage, we'll generously say it's non-standard, if not ungrammatical. Why are you addressing only my honor (whatever abstract portion that might represent) and not the man in full?
For goodness sakes, this country fought a war and wrote a Constitution to blot out titles of nobility. It's right there in Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8: "No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States."
Titles, Ben Franklin warned, posed a risk to our new republic. They could render their holders "proud, disdaining to be employed in useful arts, and thence falling into . . . servility and wretchedness." That may go a bit too far: I don't see any judge here who disdains the useful arts.
But I do think many of you would agree that a daily dose of honorifics can't help but affect any judge, and not necessarily in a good way. . . .
And so, he would prefer to just be called "judge":
[I]f we're going to use titles and names to carry out these official duties, then "Judge" seems like the least risky option. It has historical pedigree and linguistic precision on its side: While Your Honor is a term of nobility that English judges apparently borrowed from French hereditary aristocrats, "judge" is a title that we find in the Old Testament, which used the term to describe the leaders who were not kings. The role rotated and was not inheritable. And although I'm no Hebraic scholar, my understanding is that the ancient writings used the term judge more as a verb rather than a noun, much less a title or honorific. As in: "Tola the son of Puah, the son of Dodo, a man of Issachar . . . judged Israel twenty-three years."
And that distinction—between a professional duty and a personal rank—is the one I'm trying to highlight. Judges aren't the law, despite whatever Yale might be teaching these days. And what judges say and write doesn't supplant the actual law as written down in the Constitution and code books. What judges say only really matters if it's necessary to resolve an ongoing dispute. So maybe the country would be better off if the legal profession devoted less attention to the status of judges and more attention to the act of judging.