“May it Please the Court” should be retired: convince me I’m wrong

Posted Saturday, December 11th, 2021 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Litigation Strategy, Not South Carolina Specific, Of Interest to Family Law Attorneys

Perhaps I skipped law school class that day but I don’t recall being taught that I should begin every oral argument by reciting, “may it please the court.” Early in my career, having heard my senior colleagues begin argument this way, I started doing so. As some point I changed my introduction to “thank you, your honor” [“or honors” if I am addressing multiple judges].

Clearly some introductory phrase is called for when beginning oral argument: a judge has just invited you to begin your presentation and some acknowledgment of that fact is polite. Yet, I have numerous issue with “may it please the court.”

First, it is archaic, which is problematic only insofar as the phrase isn’t vivid. However, its passive voice is the second problem. Not only is the phrase tepid, but the passive voice undercuts the goal of oral advocacy, which is to present a forceful, compelling argument. It strikes my ears as a sort of mystical incantation to some higher power. I actually envision my opposing counsel seeking supernatural intercession into the judge’s heart.

The biggest problem is that the request to “please the court” is counterproductive. Shouldn’t the sheer awesomeness of one’s oral advocacy please the court? An advocate needs to project confidence; this phrase projects meekness. If its purpose is to appear a supplicant before authority, mission accomplished. Perhaps some black robes respond to supplication. In my mind, that’s the phrase’s one potential redeeming virtue. In which case my refusal to recite it implicates me in the vice of pride. If supplication to authority is the advocate’s role, I should not have become a lawyer.

Most attorneys still lead with this oldie. Opposing counsel led off with it yesterday. She prevailed. Perhaps it works. Yet I truly find it grating, which is why I write this blog. If the phrase didn’t both me, I would simply take the path of least resistance and join most of my fellow lawyers in using it.

So my colleagues who still try to “please the court”: convince me I’m wrong.

13 thoughts on “May it Please the Court” should be retired: convince me I’m wrong

  1. James Fletcher Thompson says:

    Our profession has lost some of the civility that it had in years past. I think we should hold on to anything that maintains a respect for the court and the process, anachronistic or not. It also signals to the clients that this is a serious, somber endeavor, and different from the day-to-day.

  2. Robert Rosen says:

    “Archaic” is another word for tradition albeit with a negative connotation. The law ,after all ,is the accumulation of wisdom from centuries of trial and error and respect for precedent. It’s one of those traditional phrases which shows respect for the Court as a critical institution in our society. Like Oyez, Oyez , the traditional Old English call to order before the court session begins

    1. Robert,

      I changed the blog’s title to reflect that it isn’t merely its archaic quality that bothers me. I love archaic when it’s archaic and vivid. I suspect there are scores (archaic term) of Ben Jonson phrases I would happily quote.

      What I despise about this phrase is its passive voice and appeal to outside forces.

      I still hope to begin oral argument with “prepare to be wowed!” just once before I retire.

      1. Jimmy Hartzell says:

        “May it please the court” is literally not passive voice. “May the court be pleased” would be passive voice. Grammar terms have meanings.

        Politeness phrases of course have meanings beyond their actual content. If everyone says something in a certain situation, then not saying it says more than saying it. I feel like “may it please the court” simply is the standard thing to say, and not liking the ring of it is simply not a good enough reason to go against convention. I don’t always like having to remember to say “thank you” but I do it as best I can.

  3. I tend to agree with your sentiments, and I hate archaic language that is not a direct quote from the King James Version. I use “may it please the court” much less often than I did as a younger lawyer. Your comment about passive voices interests me because when I discuss legal writing and drafting of orders with good judges, a surprising number criticize passive voice. My pet peeve is lawyers who pausing in an argument avoid “uhh” by saying “your honor.”

  4. Anne Frances Bleecker says:

    I agree with you – I’ve never used it. I think it is passive and annoying. I say Thank you, Your honor.

    1. Anne Frances,
      If you agree with me I must be right.

  5. Tony O’Neill says:

    This is the way to be assertive.

  6. Rachael Dain says:

    In Appellate Advocacy (2001), I was taught the term was archaic and only appropriate in oral arguments. For this reason, I have never used the term in a trial court. Moreover, working primarily in family court and experiencing the radical change in that court’s culture in the last 7 years, the only thing of which I am certain of is that no matter what one says or does there is 50% chance it will not please the court.

  7. Theresa Wozniak Jenkins says:

    My next one with you will lead with “leeeeeets get ready to rumblllllllllllllllle!!!” ;)

  8. I agree Greg. Tradition is important. But Bubba Ness told us to wear pearls and our hair in a nice ponytail. Was that out of respect? I’d prefer to see colleagues dressed for court rather than dressed to go bar hopping. Or fishing.

  9. I agree with you, Greg. It was not said in New Orleans where I started my practice and where we were taught to avoid all legalese. I have always thought it archaic and think “Thank you, Your Honor” is perfectly appropriate.

  10. As sometimes happens I find myself in a different place. I dislike and object to the term “Your Honor” or “The Honorable”….not because I do not respect our judges. Those terms, while customary in U.S. Courts are a pretty clear holdover from English courts and are derived from the honor of kings and other hereditary titles of various nobility. Not to get all 1776 on everybody but they just should not be part of us. I will use them as demanded, because I am overly polite, but it really is wrong for Americans and we should reconsider that custom.

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