Lawyer Sanctioned for Refusing to Answer Judge's 'Yes or No' Question

By William Vogeler, Esq. on May 11, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In an unpublished opinion, a federal appeals court upheld a $500 sanction against a lawyer who refused to answer a judge's question.

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the sanction against William Hermesmeyer for refusing an order to answer "yes" or "no." In the opinion, the appeals court said local court rules require attorneys to comply with court orders.

"Perhaps the district court contributed to the difficulties, but an attorney must comply with court orders," the appellate panel said.

"Yes or No" Question

The sanction grew out of a conversation between the lawyer and U.S. District Judge John McBryde about sentencing in a criminal case. Hermesmeyer is a federal public defender.

THE COURT: I'm not sure I understand how that answered my question. I've asked the question again. Would you please answer the question either yes or no?

MR. HERMESMEYER: Your Honor, I would stand on what I previously said. Thank you.

THE COURT: Mr. Hermesmeyer, you get very close to being held in contempt of court. Would you answer my question?

MR. HERMESMEYER: I have no further response, your Honor.

After another warning, the judge sanctioned the lawyer $500 under Local Rule 57.8. The rule says a judge may sanction an attorney for conduct "unbecoming a member of the bar and failure to comply with any order of the Court."

Failure to Answer

On appeal, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. The appellate panel considered other instances when Hermesmeyer frustrated the trial judge to evaluate the sanctions order.

The appeals court also weighed the lawyer's argument -- that he could not answer the judge's question accurately with a "yes" or a "no." However, the court said, that did not absolve him of refusing to answer or even explain his response.

"Failure to answer a court's question can constitute failure to comply with an order of the court," the panel said.

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