Ending Starting the New Year Right: Building Procedural-Fairness Skills (Part Three)   Leave a comment

For those of you who have been following along on this series, you’ve now gotten a good overview of procedural-fairness principles from Kevin Burke’s 90-minute webinar (still available) and you’ve given some thought to how you might improve your listening skills. The next step is to evaluate how you’re doing at implementing procedural-fairness principles and listening skills on the bench.

A good way to approach self-evaluation is to review your performance on videotape. Several years ago, six New Hampshire judges (Gerry Boyle, Sue Carbon, Ned Gordon, James Leary, Deborah Kane Rein, and Mike Ryan) agreed to be videotaped for a half day on the bench. Kevin and I reviewed the videos and used clips for a procedural-fairness presentation to all the judges in New Hampshire. But the six volunteer judges had their own homework assignment—watching their own videotapes and telling us what they had learned.

Their responses (set out below) show that you can learn a great deal by going through such a process. For the New Hampshire videotaping, the judges simply announced at the beginning of a docket or a hearing that they were being videotaped solely for judicial-education purposes and that the camera would be focused only on the judge. No one objected to having their hearings videotaped in this manner. Court staff members simply set up a camera on a tripod in the corner of a courtroom and let it run.

For a judge who wants to go beyond self-assessment, you could give the video to a trusted colleague, to your spouse, to a communications professor or graduate student, or to someone else whose opinion you would respect. The responses of the New Hampshire judges suggest that you can learn a great deal.

RESPONSES OF NEW HAMPSHIRE JUDGES TO QUESTIONS ABOUT THEIR VIDEOTAPES

Question 1: Please give 2 observations of things you noted when watching the tapes that you may not have been aware of or paid sufficient attention to before.

A. Time seems to go faster when you are sitting on the bench than when you are watching the hearing. Parties from other cases who are waiting to be heard are probably bored stiff and must feel that the Court has wasted their time.
B. An enormous amount of time is taken up in completing forms while on the bench, particularly in criminal matters. This diverts the judge’s focus away from the litigants and may make it appear like the judge is not paying attention to what is being said.
C. I was reading and sometimes even writing while defendants were speaking. I was flipping complaints and other paperwork over and reading them while the defendant is presenting his position on bail conditions. Pretty rude.
D. [There] is an appearance of impatience. I say appearance because I believe I am patient but, when presented with dozens of files to get through in a restricted time period, I have a sense of urgency that appears to me to come across as impatience. Rush, rush, rush.
E. I have a tendency to look angry.
F. I nod my head a lot—on the tape it’s annoying. Perhaps in person it’s not as bad (I hope!).
G. I had no idea how much I nod during the course of a presentation. I am not sure whether this is good (because it shows I am affirming that I am listening) or whether it seems that I am agreeing with what they are saying, which can cause some problems.
H. I was already aware of how slow I speak (not just on the bench but generally), but I was not aware of the number of large gaps in time that occur when I am thinking and how much of an opportunity it provides for a litigant/lawyer to fill the gap with unnecessary talk.
I. The first behavior I noted was it appeared as though I was constantly looking down. I have found that in marital cases, the taking of good notes is very important so I look down to write more often than I would in other type cases. I think participants could find my inconsistent eye contact as meaning I was not paying attention.
J. A second behavior was to ask counsel questions before asking the pro se litigant. I do not know how this is perceived by the pro se litigant. I do it only because counsel usually has a better handle on what the issues are.

Question 2: Please list 2 items on which you believe you might be able to improve your on-the-bench performance after viewing the tapes.

A. Don’t call a hearing and then spend 10 minutes trying to figure out the background of the case on the bench. I should read the file in advance or take a recess if necessary in order to appear informed when the hearing begins.
B. I show my emotions easily. I tend to show more warmth toward attorneys I know and respect. I could perhaps be more stoic in that regard, particularly when the other party is pro se.
C. I plan to put the paperwork down and make eye contact with the defendant when s/he is speaking. This change may well further exacerbate the issue of time constraints, but I was truly struck by my putting my head down and doing busy work while someone was speaking to me.
D. I plan to have the courtroom clerk separate those files with multiple or more complex charges so I can review them before the hearing. With such preparation, I will have a better idea of the charges when I address the defendant and not have to read everything for the first time with him/her standing there.
E. It would be helpful to smile and make a more welcoming greeting at the beginning of the case. I always thought I did, but at least from this angle, it seemed very curt.
F. I should try to sound and look more even-tempered. Even though I am questioning the litigant (and suspicious of what he was telling me), it is nonetheless important to appear open-minded and even-tempered.
G. I realized that I need to smile more to make people feel more at ease in the courtroom.
H. I would like to decrease the number of pauses I create. In addition to the problem expressed above, I wonder if it makes people feel that I lack confidence which in turn may make them less confident in me. I am not sure how to do this since it is the way I speak in general, but I might be able to come up with some helpful technique.
I. If I were looking at this tape, I might think that I have all the time in the world to hear these cases because each hearing was longer than probably necessary. It was just an unusual day (generally we are swamped), but each case stayed within the time allowed on the docket (and the last one with the prisoner was just marking time until the plaintiffs (wife and daughter) appeared, which they did right after Gina turned off the camera). I am sure, however, that I am wont to allow people to go on longer than needed. I am not sure that this related to procedural fairness, but it does effect the court calendar. So, I could work on being more efficient while still giving everyone a full opportunity to speak.
J. The first thing I need to work on is to be better prepared before the hearing so that it does not appear that I am unprepared by going through the file to look at the Motion when introducing the case. I try to read the pleadings the morning of the hearings but sometimes when I get to a hearing, I have forgotten what the issues were.
K. The second thing is to remember to explain legal terms to the pro se litigants. I sometimes forget that not everyone speaks legalese.

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