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A gavel is a small ceremonial mallet commonly made of hardwood, typically fashioned with a handle and often struck against a sounding block to enhance its sounding qualities. It is a symbol of the authority and right to act officially in the capacity of a chair or presiding officer. It is used to call for attention or to punctuate rulings and proclamations. It is customarily struck to indicate the opening (call to order), keep the meeting itself calm and orderly, and the closing (adjournment) of proceedings, giving rise to the phrase gavel-to-gavel to describe the entirety of a meeting or session. It is also used by judges in the courts of some countries (though, despite fictional portrayals, they have never been used in United Kingdom Criminal Courts) and by auctioneers to signal a sale.
The gavel is used in courts of law in the United States and, by metonymy, is used there to represent the entire judiciary system, especially of judgeship; to bring down the gavel means to enforce or compel with the power of a court. It also represents the authority of presiding officers; thus the expression passing the gavel signifies an orderly succession from one chair to another.
The sound of the gavel strike, being abrupt to start and stop, and clearly audible by all present, serves to sharply define an action in time in a manner clearly perceivable by all, and to endow the action with practical as well as symbolic temporal finality (what was not before striking, is after it; or what was before striking, is no more after it).
There are references to the word in Medieval England in reference to a tribute or rent payment made with something other than cash. These agreements were set in English land-court with the sound of a "gavel," a word which may come from the Old English "gafol" (meaning "tribute"). "Gavel" would be prefixed to any non-monetary payment given to a lord (e.g., "gavel-malt"). A "gavel" may also have referred to a kind of mason's tool, a setting maul that came into use as a way to maintain order in meetings.
Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised provides guidelines on the proper use of the gavel in deliberative assemblies. For instance, the chair is never to use the gavel in an attempt to drown out a disorderly member; rather, the chair should give one vigorous tap at a time at intervals. The chair should not lean on the gavel, juggle or toy with it, or use it to challenge or threaten or to emphasize remarks. The prohibited practice of a chair cutting off members' right to debate or introduce secondary motions by quickly putting a question to vote before any member can get the floor is referred to as "gaveling through" a measure.
The unique gavel of the United States Senate has an hourglass shape and no handle. The gavel in current use was presented to the Senate by the Republic of India and first used on November 17, 1954. This gavel replaced an ivory gavel that had been in use since at least 1789 and had deteriorated over the years. In 1952, silver plates were added to both ends of the old gavel in an attempt to prevent further damage to it. In 1954, it broke when Vice President Richard Nixon used it during a heated debate on nuclear energy. Unable to obtain a piece of ivory large enough to replace the gavel, the Senate appealed to the Indian embassy. India presented to the United States the solid ivory replica still in use.
In both houses, the gavel is generally sounded, that is, struck, once to mark the opening of the session, the adjournment, and to punctuate announcements of decisions by the body (that is, when the presiding officer announces that a resolution or motion is passed, the gavel is generally tapped once to declare the issue finished and to move on). The gavel, particularly in the House of Representatives, is often tapped repeatedly to call the assembly to order or to restore order when cross-conversation has made it too noisy to proceed.
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