Archive for October 23, 2012

Why Judicial Apologies Matter for Procedural Fairness   2 comments

Guest Blogger: Maxine Goodman

My recent article, Removing the Umpire’s Mask: The Propriety and Impact of Judicial Apologies, 4 Utah L. Rev. 1529 (2011), describes instances when judges have apologized in their courtrooms to parties or lawyers.   Examples include Dallas State District Judge Faith Johnson apologizing to a defendant’s family for throwing a “recapture party” after the defendant, who was briefly a fugitive, was captured.  At the party, the judge had balloons and served ice cream.  Judge Johnson later said she was sorry if her celebration offended anyone.  Judge Thomas M. Lynch IV apologized to Anthony Caravella who spent 26 years in jail and was later exonerated based on DNA evidence.  The judge apologized to Caravella on behalf of the criminal justice system of Florida.  And, Judge Vanessa Gilmore, a federal district court judge in Houston, Texas, apologized to the victims of a mortgage scam after sentencing the defendant to what the judge considered too light a sentence.

These examples are but a few of the instances when judges apologize in court, either on their own behalf or on behalf of the State.  The article posits that judicial apologies are warranted and necessary when a judge is responsible for causing harm to a party or lawyer and when the apology is sincere.    To be sincere, the apology must acknowledge the harm and not provide any conditions, like “if this behavior offended anyone.”  As an example of a proper apology, Justice Scalia apologized for unnecessarily chastising a lawyer for failing to include a reference to a statute in the lawyer’s brief, when he had, in fact, done so.  Justice Scalia apologized, saying “Mr. Bress, I want to apologize to you for accusing you of not printing 2254(d) and (e) in your brief.  You indeed did.”

Judges should not apologize when they are not responsible for the wrongdoing and their apology is not authentic.  These apologies come across as disingenuous and are unlikely to elicit forgiveness.  When the apology is politically motivated or compelled by accusations of judicial wrongdoing, the judge’s apology is likely to serve as a confusing gesture, unlikely to help the offended party regain trust in the judge and, by extension, the judiciary (and potentially the legal system).

The primary reason for concern over judicial apologies is the need for procedural fairness.  Research shows that parties are typically more likely to consider a court proceeding fair when the judge has treated them courteously, with dignity and respect.  According to this approach, a judge treating a party with courtesy is more important for the party’s perception of the fairness of a proceeding than the outcome of the hearing or trial.   Accordingly, a judicial apology can play a significant role in a party’s perception of the court’s fairness when a judge who has, for example, lost his temper and chastised a party or lawyer, offers an authentic apology to the party or lawyer.

Maxine Goodman is a Professor at the South Texas College of Law