From the Bench: What's in an oath?

By Judge Brent Elliott

Webster’s Dictionary defines it as: “A solemn attestation of the truth or inviolability of one’s words.”

Every person who is called upon to offer testimony in Missouri Courts of Law must commit to the truth. In my 40 years as a practicing attorney and judge, I have witnessed or administered tens of thousands of oaths. In all those times, there is one witness’s unique response to the oath that has intrigued, and amused, me for years.

Besides being tall and skinny, (Note: I am not under oath as I write this.) Abe Lincoln and I had something in common. As young attorneys, when business was slow, we enjoyed trips to area courthouses to watch the experienced lawyers try their cases. It proved to be time well spent and bore much fruit as our practices progressed.

On one such occasion, I was at the Livingston County Courthouse watching two of the most experienced and finest lawyers, I ever had the pleasure of meeting, try a dissolution of marriage (divorce) case. The judge was of like experience and maintained control of what was clearly a tense, vitriolic proceeding.

The parties were a successful farm couple. They appeared to be in their late 70s or 80s and had been married for well over 50 years. When their children grew up and moved away, their time alone together had not proved to be the pleasant experience one might anticipate. To put it bluntly, they had enjoyed all they could stand of each other.

The wife took the stand first. To describe her testimony as “venomous” would be kind. In response to questions by her attorney and opposing counsel, she described in painstaking detail decades of sins and transgressions her husband committed.

When the wife finished, the judge instructed the husband to stand, raise his right hand, and be sworn by the clerk to testify. The clerk recited her standard oath: “Do you solemnly swear the testimony you are about to give will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” Instead of the usually prompt response of “I do” or “I will,” there was a reflective pause. Finally, lowering his hand to shake his finger at his wife, the husband raced toward the witness stand and declared, “I’ll do every bit as good as she did!”

All these years later, I still wonder if that husband committed to “A solemn attestation of the truth.”

Personal Note: Every time I think of that Livingston County farm couple, I am reminded of the elderly Iowa farm family that was being honored at a banquet for their years of generosity and dedicated service to their community. As the Master of Ceremonies read off a long list of accolades and charitable work performed by the wife, her husband leaned over and whispered, “I am proud of you, honey.” Unfortunately, the wife was a little bit hard of hearing. Also, unfortunately, there was a brief pause by the speaker, so nearly everyone could hear her when she gruffly turned and responded, “Well – I’m tired of you too!”