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In many movies featuring a court scene, the judge is seen pounding a wood hammer on the desk to either silence the court room, or to announce a decision.

Why do judges use a hammer? Is it only a Hollywood movie feature, or does it happen in real life? If it is the latter, what is the history behind this tradition?

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    It's called a gavel. – Nate Eldredge Feb 19 '18 at 15:52
  • ...the symbolism of this isn't exactly an exercise in subtly, is it? (And that's probably the "why" underlying this long tradition, though it's not something that's really provable one way or the other.) – HopelessN00b Feb 19 '18 at 22:07
  • For carpentry, e.g. if they are remodeling the courtroom. – foobarbecue Feb 20 '18 at 17:45
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The ceremonial hammer is called a gavel and usually looks like this:

enter image description here

Stock image used with permission

(Gavels in India and in the U.S. Senate which received its gavel as a diplomatic gift from India, don't have handles.)

It is used in both courts and public meetings (most often city council meetings or legislative body committee meetings, but also, for example, in both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House) for the functional purpose of getting people's attention and telling them to shut up without having to make a shrill whistle or having to yell, both of which would be less dignified.

It is a very ancient tradition in the common law tradition that dates all of the way back to when English lords presided over disputes between their subjects personally, before the specialized position of judge was invented, and has been used for pretty much the entire history of the United States, even dating back to the colonial period. I don't know if gavels are used outside of the common law legal tradition or not.

It tends to be used more in public meetings than courtrooms these days because court hearings are not nearly as well attended as they used to be, so there aren't enough people making noise in the courtroom to make its use necessary. I have used one a few times to preside over political party meetings when I was political party official.

These days, a typical court hearing today has only a judge, a bailiff, another court clerk, one or two lawyers for both sides, one or two parties for each side, and up to about four witnesses or spectators, plus a jury and a court reporter in a typical jury trial.

Also, in court almost everyone is well behaved because the judge has direct contempt of court power (another vestige of directly imposition of justice by a lord or king that dates to the same time period as the gavel) and can throw anyone in the room in jail summarily if desired for minor misbehavior, a power that other people presiding over public meetings usually lack.

But, historically (pre-television for the most part), in contrast, watching court hearings was a major form of community ritual and/or entertainment and crowds of dozens or more spectators were common.

Sometimes in a court, when it is used, it is wielded by the bailiff (a court official charged with maintaining order in the court and supervising the jury) who often doubles as a law clerk or administrative assistant to the judge, rather than the judge. The bailiff is also the person who calls out "all rise" when the judge enters the room at the beginning of a hearing and when the judge leaves at the conclusion of a hearing. In rural areas, the bailiff/law clerk is usually armed. In urban areas, the sheriff for the county typically provides court security and the bailiff only ceremonially maintains courtroom order.

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    "The rural bailiff is usually armed"; that would be in the USA. – Tim Lymington supports Monica Feb 19 '18 at 17:14
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    @TimLymington Absolutely, although the point is somewhat broader. In rural areas (which may extent beyond the U.S.) a bailiff is usually a full fledged law enforcement officer, whether or not armed, while in urban areas, the law enforcement court security post and the bailiff post are more likely to be separated. – ohwilleke Feb 19 '18 at 17:40
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    Does the courtroom gavel have a common ancestor with the mace of the House of Representatives (and many universities), or are they independent developments in legal hammer technology? en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – user662852 Feb 19 '18 at 18:15
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    Note that the original gavel of the Senate had no handle either and the replacement that India gave it was actually modeled after the original. – RBarryYoung Feb 19 '18 at 22:47
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    You mention that gavels were used by English lords when dispensing justice personally. However, it is, I think, worth noting that gavels are not used in English courts (except in TV dramas written by people who either don't know or who know that audiences have been taught by Hollywood that courts have gavels). – David Richerby Feb 20 '18 at 11:15
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To extend what @ohwilleke said, I have a little bit more information that's hopefully useful.

Gavels are a feature of U.S. courts: they don't exist in courtrooms of the UK or Commonwealth countries (e.g. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc.; link from the UK Judiciary, but also found in Wikipedia articles on Canadian courts). While doing some brief (couple of hours) research into this, the best guess that I could find about the origin of the gavel was from an article from the president of American Historical Association in 2009. Her view is that it might be Masonic, but that's based somewhat on conjecture (which is supported by this LAWLIB listserv message from 17 February 2000.)

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    At least some Cambridge colleges use a gavel to announce to people at the reception before a formal dinner that they should proceed to the dining hall. So it is quite an old way of calling people to order. – David Richerby Feb 20 '18 at 11:13
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    "they don't exist in courtrooms of the UK"... except in fictional portrayals on television, where producers who are ignorant of this fact (and influenced by portrayals of US courtrooms) frequently include them. Search The Magistrate's Blog for mentions of gavels with a Google search for site:thelawwestofealingbroadway.blogspot.com gavel and you will discover a great number of complaints about this common error, expressed with various degrees of righteous indignation. – Mark Amery Feb 20 '18 at 16:17
  • The citation for the UK Judiciary AFAIK only covers England & Wales. (Though it is true, they've never been used anywhere in the UK.) – gsnedders Feb 20 '18 at 19:14
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    @gsnedders UK references are often hard to get for the entire realm: even if they specifically reference England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, that's not the entire UK either (they're missing the British Overseas Territories), and then there's the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands! – ErikF Feb 20 '18 at 20:37

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