Archive for September 2012

Judging Procedural Fairness in Utah   Leave a comment

The Utah Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission has posted its first formal evaluation of judges based on procedural-fairness criteria. The commission has evaluated the 25 Utah judges up for retention in the November 2012 election.

Utah is the first state to provide detailed evaluations of judges’ behavior in the courtroom based on procedural-fairness criteria. The Utah commission is required by law to provide a public evaluation of each judge up for retention, and the statute setting up the commission requires that its evaluations be based in part on observation of each judge in the courtroom. The commission adopted an administrative regulation providing for a corps of trained citizen volunteers who would observe each judge in the courtroom. Those administrative regulations also require that the judges be evaluated on procedural-fairness criteria: voice (e.g., whether the judge gave parties an adequate opportunity to be heard), neutrality (e.g., whether the judge displayed fairness and provided transparency in rulings), and respect (e.g., whether the judge demonstrated courtesy toward all who appeared before him or her). At least four different observers are used for each judge.

Through this program, Utah became the first state to evaluate judges specifically on procedural-fairness criteria. Two other states—Alaska and Colorado—have used courtroom observers as part of a judicial-evaluation program, but neither provided specific criteria for evaluating the judge’s adherence to procedural-fairness principles.

For the 25 judges up for retention this year, all were approved for retention, though three judges were approved with one dissent in 11-to-1 votes. In two of those cases, although the judges had positive ratings from attorneys, courtroom observers had raised some concerns and at least one courtroom observer had said that he or she would feel uncomfortable appearing in front of the judge.

Skeptics might suggest that when all 25 judges are approved for retention, the evaluation process isn’t meaningful. But there can be effects that are not obvious to us that occur over time in jurisdictions that do formal judicial evaluations: Judges who receive poor scores or would not be recommended for retention sometimes decide to retire or to return to practice rather than seek retention. In such cases, the draft evaluation or interim evaluation they have received does its job without requiring voters to act. (I have no idea whether this happened this year in Utah; I merely suggest that it does happen to some extent in jurisdictions with evaluation programs. But since evaluations are publicly released only for judges who stand for retention, there’s no public record from which we can determine how many judges voluntarily leave the bench based on negative evaluations.)

Adding courtroom observations focused on procedural-fairness criteria can be expected to improve judicial performance in this critical area. Utah’s efforts are to be commended.

For those wanting more information about the process in Utah, take a look at a recent article in the American Judges Association journal, Court Review, by Nicholas H. Woolf, a consultant to the Utah commission, and Jennifer MJ Yim, a commission member, or you can review a paper I presented to the Utah state judicial conference in September 2011.

Steve Leben

Posted September 13, 2012 by Steve Leben in Courts

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Opinions as the Voice of the Court   Leave a comment

Guest Blogger: Douglas G. Denton

When the United States Supreme Court issued its written opinion in Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000), it did so at 10:00 p.m. on a Friday night. This culminated an intense week of briefing and oral argument regarding a Florida recount of the presidential vote. By releasing the opinion on a Friday night, the court genuinely believed that it was acting in the best interests of the nation – and was complying with requests from media – to provide immediate and instant access to the high court’s opinion, precisely when it was completed. What happened, however, was immediate on-air confusion. In their extreme excitement, reporters quickly realized that they did not know how to read a high court opinion. On the following Saturday, The New York Times reported on Friday evening’s events: “As Mr. (Brian) Williams offered bits of encouragement, the (MSNBC) reporter began flipping anxiously through the document. ‘Hang on, Brian!’ Mr. (Bob) Kur said, struggling to find a page that offered some encapsulation of the decision. ‘Looking for the summary.’ When at last he found something, Mr. Kur began reading aloud, but the legalese was almost impossible to make sense of. The mandate placed on television for instant clarity and coherence proved elusive … One problem for the networks was extracting a clear narrative (regarding the substance of the opinion) from the many people they had reading the document simultaneously.” (Peter Marks, Contesting the Vote: The Media; Once Again, the TV Mystery Prevails as Late-Night Fare, N.Y. Times, Dec. 13, 2000, at A1).

Memories of the fallout from the release of the Bush v. Gore decision prompted members of the 2008–2011 Harvard Executive Session for State Court Leaders to begin a dialogue regarding how and when opinions of the high court should be released. For example, what tools or strategies might encourage broad media and public understanding of opinions, particularly when a common high court policy is that “the opinion speaks for itself”? This dialogue led to extensive research by the Administrative Office of the Courts in California and the National Center for State Courts, including a survey of all 50 state high courts. It also lead to a new Harvard Executive Session Paper, “Opinions as the Voice of the Court,” which is co-authored by Wallace B. Jefferson, Chief Justice of Texas; William C. Vickrey, Retired Administrative Director, California Administrative Office of the Courts; and myself. The paper discusses the workings of state supreme courts and effective communication through the lens of procedural fairness.

Over the past decade, all courts – from the U.S. Supreme Court to the hundreds of trial and appellate courts across the nation – have evolved and learned how to better inform, prepare and engage with modern audiences. Effective collaboration between media,  bench and bar is crucial to achieve public understanding of rulings, a key ingredient that helps achieve procedural fairness. “Opinions as the Voice of the Court” speaks directly to how the preparation and dissemination of high court opinions (including use of tools like plain language, summarization, and effective communication via the web) may help courts to ensure that each individual opinion—the voice of the court—successfully communicates and demonstrates to various audiences that the court has listened to parties, fulfilled its unique role as an arbiter of justice, and reached a fair outcome.

Douglas G. Denton is a Senior Court Services Analyst at the California Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), San Francisco 

Posted September 4, 2012 by proceduralfairness in Courts, U.S. Supreme Court

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