Archive for August 2013

How Low Public Trust Threatens the Legitimacy of Court Decisions   Leave a comment

Trust is an essential component of procedural fairness, which, in turn, has been shown to be a key source of legitimacy for decision-makers. All public institutions now face serious skepticism from the public about their trustworthiness. However, a trust  deficit – and the resulting lack of legitimacy – are of particular threat to the judiciary. Legitimacy is essential if courts are to be respected and, indeed, if court orders are to be obeyed. Simply put, failure to maintain and enhance the legitimacy of court decisions imperils the judiciary as an institution and the vital role assigned to the judiciary in our Constitutional tradition.

The threat is real. Today, 75% of the American public thinks judges’ decisions are, to a moderate to significant extent, influenced by their political or personal philosophy. Of course, judges have a range of philosophical views and exercise discretion, so some differences of opinion among judges are to be expected. But 75% of the American public also believes  judges’ decisions are, to a moderate to significant extent, influenced by their desire to be appointed to a higher court.

Two recent articles explain the potentially grave implications.

First,  Politico recently published a contribution by law professors Charles Geyh and Stephen Gillers advocating for a bill to make the Supreme Court adopt a code of ethics. They argue:

[I]t would be a mistake for the Court to view the [ethics] bill as a challenge to its power. It is rather an invitation. No rule is thrust on the justices. Under the … bill, the justices are asked to start with the code governing other federal judges, but are then free to make ‘any amendments or modifications’ they deem ‘appropriate.’ A response that says, in effect, ‘We won’t do it because you can’t make us’ will hurt the court and the rule of law.

Second, Linda Greenhouse, a regular commentator on the New York Times Blog “Opinionator,” recently wrote this post about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court entitled Too Much Work?. Greenhouse writes:

As Charlie Savage reported in The Times last month, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has used that authority to name Republican-appointed judges to 10 of the court’s 11 seats. (While Republicans in Congress accuse President Obama of trying to “pack” the federal appeals court in Washington simply by filling its vacant seats, they have expressed no such concern over the fact that the chief justice has over-weighted the surveillance court with Republican judges to a considerably greater degree than either of the two other Republican-appointed chief justices who have served since the court’s creation in 1978.)

What do these two pieces mean for judges? Both articles highlight how the judiciary itself, if not careful, can contribute to the erosion of public trust in our decisions. To be sure, the erosion of the legitimacy of judicial decisions is not entirely the fault of the Supreme Court, nor of judges in general.  The media, for example, often refers to which President appointed a judge as a shorthand way to explain a decision.  But that is, in part, why Ms. Greenhouse’s piece is important. The Chief Justice is recognized as a brilliant man. He and every other judge in the United States know the inevitable shorthand the media will use to describe judges and to explain their decisions. And so the Chief Justice, the members of the United States Supreme Court, indeed every judge in this country needs to be particularly sensitive to what we are doing that might either advance trust in courts or contribute to the erosion of the legitimacy of our courts. The bottom line is: Appearances make a difference. There will be decisions by judges at every level of court that test the public’s trust in our wisdom. It is therefore imperative that judges act in a manner that builds a reservoir of goodwill so that people will stand by courts when a decision is made with which they disagree. There may have been an era when trust in the wisdom and impartiality of judicial decisions could be taken as a given. But if there was such an era, we no longer live in it. Trust and legitimacy today must be earned.

Kevin Burke

State-Court Leaders Urge Action on Procedural-Fairness Agenda   Leave a comment

Two of the most influential organizations of American state-court leaders have adopted a resolution urging greater implementation of procedural-fairness principles throughout the court system.

Meeting jointly in Burlington, Vermont, the Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ) and the Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA) adopted a resolution challenging state supreme courts and state-court administrators to consider employing several strategies designed to promote procedural fairness. Among the recommendations are:

· Measuring litigant satisfaction in the area of fairness using a tool such as the “access and fairness” measure that is part of the National Center for State Courts’ CourTools program.

· Encouraging the integration of research on procedural fairness and effective decision-making processes into judicial-education programs.

· Identifying opportunities for judges to get honest feedback and mentoring.

· Practicing procedural-fairness principles in the treatment of court personnel.

· Championing procedural-fairness principles in messages to the public, the media, and other branches of government.

· Holding judges and court staff accountable for operating courts in a manner consistent with procedural-fairness principles—treating everyone with respect, allowing the opportunity to be heard, and providing adequate explanations of court orders.

The resolution noted several specific resources developed to help courts in addressing procedural fairness—including this website! Among the other resources specifically mentioned were two American Judges Association white papers: Procedural Fairness: A Key Ingredient in Public Satisfaction (2007) and Minding the Court: Enhancing the Decision-Making Process (2012).

The resolution was jointly adopted by the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators on July 31, 2013.

Wanted: Guest Blog Entries Regarding State Procedural-Fairness Activities! On a related note, we want to stay on top of activities to promote procedural fairness. Last month, we were pleased to present a guest blog entry from Alaska Chief Justice Dana Fabe, who wrote about the new “Pledge of Fairness” that was posted earlier this year in every Alaska courthouse. If there have been recent activities in your state that others might find of interest, please check out the process for submitting a guest blog post here at the Procedural Fairness Blog. We hope to hear from you soon.