A judge, in any jurisdiction, is considered to be a person of honor. As such, the position of judge is considered to be an honorable position and should be treated accordingly with respect and deference. Although judges may be addressed with other titles, the proper salutation for a judge is "your honor" in all cases, and by all people involved in the court system.
In most courtrooms, a judge is introduced by the bailiff or another member of the court staff before he or she enters the room. It is customary to introduce the judge by saying something along the lines of "...the honorable Judge Smith presiding." The term "your honor" is a shortened way to address "the honorable Judge Smith" from that point on in the proceedings.
Throughout a court proceeding, many participants in the case may have the opportunity to address the judge and all should refer to him or her as "your honor." When an attorney speaks directly to the judge, he or she always addresses the judge as "your honor." In many court proceedings, the parties to the case may also have reason to address the judge directly and should do so by using "your honor." Witnesses that testify in a court will also address the judge by calling him or her "your honor."
Although a participant or observer in a courtroom may hear people address a judge by using "sir," "madam," or other salutations, the correct and respectful manner in which to address a judge remains "your honor." In addition, no one in a courtroom should address a judge without asking permission or without being spoken to by the judge first. While some courtrooms are more informal in both decorum and procedure, this does not lessen the stature of a judge or the honor bestowed upon him or her by virtue of the title.
Why Are Judges Called Your Honor?
To fully grasp why judges are referred to as "your honor," it is necessary to take a look at the history of the term. In the past, any person of royal or notable lineage or position was often referred to as "your honor," to denote that the individual was special and should be given higher regard. It was used for wealthy landowners, knights, judges, and more. Over time, the term fell out of use for the majority of individuals. Many changed to being called sir or ma'am instead of "your honor" or "honorable." While individuals of a royal background become known as "your highness" or "your majesty" instead. In many cultures though, the term remained in use for judges.
The main purpose behind the use of the term "your honor" as it is used for judges today is still to denote that higher stature and additional respect that judges deserve. Judges occupy positions that require them to give unbiased, honest, consistent, and reliable opinions about legal and criminal matters. This significant position in society demands additional work and education, so a judge has gone through additional training and labor to fulfill that position. The extra schooling and effort they go through are signified then by giving them the title of Judge and referring to them as "honorable" or "your honor."
Are You Required To Reference a Judge as Your Honor?
In the courtroom, while there is no specific legal regulation that requires a person to refer to a judge as "your honor," it is regarded as highly disrespectful not to. Consistently not giving the judge respect by referring to them by something else can even be a sign of purposeful disregard and contempt towards the judge. If a judge decides that an individual is being discourteous on purpose, he or she can label that person as being in contempt of court. People who are in contempt of court can be detained or even arrested and sentenced to jail.
There are rare instances where a judge will tell people to refer to them as something other than "your honor." In these cases, a judge might begin with, "During these proceedings please always refer to me as..." and then state his or her preference. If a judge does state this for some reason, he or she may ask to be called Judge LAST NAME, or sir, or ma'am instead. Remember, these situations are rare, so it is always best to err on the side of caution and stick with the honorable tradition by always calling a judge "your honor" during all court proceedings unless the judge specifically states otherwise.
Do You Call a Judge Your Honor Outside of Court?
Outside of the courtroom, how a person properly references a judge depends entirely on the situation and each judge's personal preferences. Some judges prefer that people only call them by their name outside of the courtroom. If this is the case, it is best to still say Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms. LAST NAME, depending on their marital situation. Knowing that situation can be difficult at first though, so simply using the title Judge can be just as appropriate. Saying Judge LAST NAME is essentially the same as referring to a medical doctor as Dr. LAST NAME. In rare circumstances, where a person retains a much more personal relationship with a judge, that person may refer to a judge simply by their first name with no title. If the judge in question has not explicitly said to do this though, don't, because this is usually considered incredibly rude.
Another time that you might refer to a judge as something other than "your honor" is in written correspondence. If the letter is being written for legal or professional reasons, it is even considered almost informal to simply address it to, "Your Honor." Instead of addressing it to a vague entity like "you honor," a person should always address these kinds of correspondences either to "Honorable Judge FULL FIRST AND LAST NAME" or to "Judge LAST NAME of the specific court that judge presides over." This is largely considered both more formal and more respectful than the general term, "your honor."
If there is ever a question about how a person should refer to a judge outside of the courtroom, the best course of action is to try to be as respectful as possible. To begin with, use the title Judge, and then ask the judge what he or she prefers as he or she will usually have a specific desire regarding this matter.