By Brenda L. Storey, Esq.
For many people, their only exposure to a courtroom is for a divorce. Although that is a good thing, it does leave one wondering what to expect. In Colorado, a divorce trial is heard by the judge, in a formal courtroom. The judge sits at the front, with a witness stand to the side. Facing the judge on one side is Petitioner’s table and on the other side is Respondent’s table. A lectern separates the litigants’ tables.
Court is a very civil procedure. The argument is addressed to the judge, with counsel not facing or arguing with each other. Counsel speak one at a time, standing at the lectern, directing their statements to the judge. One side speaks, then the other, and then the judge.
For a trial, the first question is whether the parties are ready to proceed, and if there are any pretrial issues. These pretrial issues can range from discovery deficiencies, to exhibit challenges, to excluding potential witnesses from the courtroom before testifying, to requests for continuances. Each side raises their issues, the other side gets to respond, and the Court resolves the matters one by one.
The next step is, usually, Opening Statements. Some courts have dispensed with these, and instead ask for written submissions prior to the trial commencing. If oral Opening Statements are made, Petitioner’s counsel presents first, and then Respondent’s counsel. These Statements are simply an overview of what each side believes the evidence will show, and an outline of the relief being requested based upon that evidence.
The substance of the trial then begins. Petitioner’s attorney calls the first witness, who takes the witness stand that sits to the side of the judge but tends to face the lectern. The lawyer asks questions of the witness, called “direct examination,” and once done, sits down. The Respondent’s counsel then proceeds with “cross examination.” The attorney who called the witness is allowed to “redirect,” meaning ask follow up questions covered in the cross examination. Sometimes, the judge asks questions of the witness. After the redirect, the judge dismisses the witness, who leaves the witness stand and is done. This continues, until the Petitioner rests his or her case, meaning all witnesses for Petitioner have testified. Respondent gets to then put on his/her case-in-chief, calling each witness one at a time, with Petitioner cross examining, and Respondent redirecting.
The questions asked must be answered, unless there is a valid objection that the judge sustains. If the objection is “overruled,” the question must be answered; “sustained” means the witness is not to answer. The witness is to answer only the question posed, and not go on with a narrative or be argumentative. The judge can interject and direct the witness to answer only the question posed.
Through witnesses, documentary and similar evidence may be offered into evidence. There are specific rules as to what is, and is not, allowed, and how to get the exhibit into evidence successfully. Not all evidence offered necessarily is admitted. Unless admitted, the court cannot consider the evidence.
Once all the witnesses have testified, and both sides rest, Closing Arguments are heard. These Arguments summarize what the party believes the evidence proved, and ties it to applicable case law that is argued to the court. At the conclusion, the case is ripe for ruling. Some judges rule right there, on the spot, from the bench. Others take the matter under advisement and either prepare a written order or schedule a follow up appearance to render a verbal ruling.
Some courts limit the trial time, allotting each side the exact amount of time regardless of whether the party can present their whole case in that time. In these courtrooms, Opening Statements and Closing Arguments are usually dispensed with, and instead submitted in writing (Opening Statements in advance; Closing Argument by a deadline after trial concludes). This allows all time in court to be dedicated to testimony and exhibits.
Court is nerve racking. The more you know, and the more you prepare, the less nervous you will be. There are no guaranteed results. However, a trial does provide closure which, in and of itself, is a positive. Good luck!