Right before the trial begins, trial judges routinely invite counsel into chambers to explore areas of agreement and disagreement, anticipated trial objections, and how certain matters will be handled at trial. These conversations may feel informal, but they are far from it—get any argument or decisions made in chambers on the record.
Seasoned attorneys usually request an informal conference with the judge in chambers before trial to discuss any evidentiary or other unresolved questions. This is also a good time to alert the court to any motions in limine that aren’t yet filed. Some courts may use the pretrial conference to hear arguments on motions in limine or may schedule the arguments to be heard on the same day. See Los Angeles Ct R 3.25(h).
For the judge, this meeting is critical. Even in a direct calendaring court, the judicial officer generally has not focused his or her undivided attention on the case until this time. So it’s very important that you be prepared to clearly sketch out the trial for the judge at this meeting.
And don’t get lulled into a feeling of informality just because it takes place in chambers—keep your record and possible appeal in mind at all times and always request that a court reporter be present when evidentiary problems or other matters are discussed.
If the judge doesn’t allow court reporters in a chambers conference, immediately following the chambers conference, put on the record the matters discussed or ruled on by the judge. Either orally announce these matters while the court reporter records them or prepare a written order. This step reduces the possibility that the parties will later dispute what was said or covered.
Don’t leave any issue unraised just because you’re in chambers. Raising an issue in chambers may actually improve your chances of preserving that issue for appeal. For example, in Pierce v J. C. Penney Co. (1959) 167 CA2d 3, the appellate court held that a party’s trial objection was sufficient to preserve the issue for appeal because the matter had been thoroughly discussed both in chambers before trial began (where the issues of law and pertinent decisions were discussed and parties stated their respective positions) and at the bench during trial. “Thus, the trial judge had been fully apprised of the respective contentions of the parties with respect to the admissibility of the evidence in question and the specific grounds of the objection.” 167 CA2d at 13.
Get practical advice for all aspects of civil trials in CEB’s California Trial Practice: Civil Procedure During Trial.
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