Watch your F****n mouth. The practice is turning up the heat on profanity

I am from New Jersey, and that means I swear a lot. In my home state we’ve elevated the F-word to everyday vernacular. Example: when you walk along the boardwalk down the shore (that’s what we call the beach) and you pass by a person pushing a stroller it’s common to hear someone say, “What a cute baby! How old is that friggin thing?”

And we don’t say friggin.

But recent developments in the practice have made it clear that people like me need to start watching our mouths. 

A judge in Kansas was recently suspended for having a foul mouth. The ABA Journal reported that “A Kansas judge who dropped F-bombs and refused to ‘f- – -ing apologize’ to one employee subjected to one of his outbursts has been suspended from the bench for ‘quite troubling’ behavior. [FN1] Apparently, his mouth was so bad that one of the staff started a “swear journal” that documented the obscenities. [FN2]  And the court wasn’t swayed by the idea that swearing is something that happens often in a particular locale:

According to the opinion, Cullins “claims cussing is so common in Southeast Kansas that the entire region would take offense at the suggestion that the use of the word connotes a negative reflection on an individual’s character.”

The Kansas Supreme Court countered that Cullins “misses the panel’s point”: He used the word in a loud and angry interaction with one clerk and in a humiliating exchange with the other clerk, the court said. [FN3]

Granted, the article acknowledged that the F-word wasn’t his only misbehavior. The court appears to have “cited the appearance of bias, a violation of decorum and a harm to confidence in the judiciary.” [FN4] But the swearing was a big part of the opinion, and there are a few interesting lessons for lawyers here. 

First, beware of situations where someone’s profanity is just the tip of a bigotry-laden iceberg. That’s got nothing to do with region, common practice, or anything else. Profanity in that scenario is just wrong, period.  The other two lessons, however, are for the rest of us — those people who swear…well…because…it’s just something we do.

The second lesson is about getting onto the disciplinary system’s radar. Here’s a question for you— what’s the quickest way to get a grievance filed against you? The answer: piss somebody off. Whoops, is that profane? Okay, how about if I follow my own advice and change. The answer: make someone angry. And one of the quickest ways to make them angry is to use profanity.  Profanity pushes people over the edge. Here’s what I mean. 

Consider that you might have done something that a client thinks might be worthy of a grievance. Of course, it also might not be worthy of a grievance. Maybe it was something that wasn’t actionable, but just really aggravated the client. And then let’s say that when discussing that mishap with the client you drop the F-bomb.  Now they aren’t just aggravated, they’re also offended. And that might be the additional motivation they need to report you.

I don’t want anyone to think that I am trying to dissuade individuals from filing bona fide grievances. Not at all. I’m just saying that behavior which might not be worthy of discipline could still end up being reported if that borderline bad behavior is accompanied with profanity. And, sure, you might be exonerated in the end. But who needs to be banging around in the disciplinary system for 6 months until you’re finally let off the hook?

The third, and final lesson is about behaving better. There was a day where a lawyer could swear like the proverbial sailor and get away with it. After all, we’re in an adversarial profession where things often get quite heated and profanity was long considered part of the job. But the decision about the Kansas judge and others like it show that the paradigm is shifting.  The practice of law is putting far greater emphasis on behaving in a professional manner. Yes, lawyers are always supposed to stay away from ethics violations, and in that regard the rules establish what we could do. But cases that address profanity are also telling lawyers to consider what we should do. The lesson is really about professionalism. The lesson for all of us is about making an effort to elevate our personal behavior. It’s about aspiring to better behavior, voluntarily.

So let’s all commit to reducing our bad language. After all, using profanity just makes things worse. I’m going to try to follow that advice too. Plus, if I stop swearing so much maybe my spell checker will finally know what I’m trying to ducking say.  

Footnotes:

  1. https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/judge-with-salty-personality-gets-suspension-partly-for-f-bombs-he-says-word-is-ubiquitous-in-southeast-kansas, last checked 3/5/2021.
  2. https://apnews.com/article/trials-kansas-judiciary-courts-us-news-06feae6a585ec45554ed5f40b728e1b1?fbclid=IwAR2YWI_mJFwuDObS1rBSg8s9QFueowvBdJK1NvuUltBP-UfnXA3MhlMP0E0, last checked 3/6/2021.
  3. https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/judge-with-salty-personality-gets-suspension-partly-for-f-bombs-he-says-word-is-ubiquitous-in-southeast-kansas last checked 3/5/2021
  4. https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/judge-with-salty-personality-gets-suspension-partly-for-f-bombs-he-says-word-is-ubiquitous-in-southeast-kansas, last checked 3/5/2021

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