Author Archive

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

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

Tagged with ,

Civility, Courage, and Collegiality Among Judges Is Procedural Justice   Leave a comment

Guest Blogger: Ingo Keilitz

The principles of procedural justice and fairness — giving voice to litigants and other “clients” of courts, basing decisions on established rules rather than personal opinion, providing respectful treatment, and establishing trust — do not just apply to fair and just treatment of members of the public who appear in court, but also to the way judges engage with each other.

This commonality came to mind as I watched a video of an Open Society Foundation-sponsored talk by Albie Sachs, the former judge on the Constitutional Court of South Africa, an activist and a leading campaigner in the fight against apartheid.  In the video, Sachs discusses his 2011 book, The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law, written as his term on the Constitutional Court was ending.

Sachs was appointed to the Constitutional Court of South Africa by President Nelson Mandela.  He conveys with intimate candor what it was like to be a judge in the unique circumstances of post-apartheid South Africa, how his extraordinary life influenced his approach to the cases before him, and how, in this “alchemy of life and law,” the intangible qualities of passion and concern for protecting human dignity are required for law to work in the service of justice in a democracy.

Sachs speaks in the video about what makes an effective judge in terms of the “three Cs”- civility, courage, and collegiality. Civility, he says, is not just good manners.  It is respecting people with whom you differ, perhaps very sharply.  It provides a framework in which one can discuss and debate without rancor.  Civility is critical on the bench among the judges themselves and between a judge and counsel and witnesses.  Judges, he emphasizes, owe a clear duty to citizens to maintain a framework of civility in the court.

Sachs goes on to speak passionately about the quality of courage, which means following one’s conscience and having the integrity and conviction to speak the truth as one sees it, even when it’s inconvenient, even when it is embarrassing and unpopular, and especially with people one likes and respects.  Going along simply to get along, he might say, suggests a lack of courage.

His third “C” is collegiality, the capacity and willingness to engage with one’s colleagues in a rational way toward common ground, without divisiveness and without ill will.

As I listened to the video, I thought Sachs was defining procedural justice and fairness within the internal sphere of the court.  Though Sachs’ focus is on civility, courage, and collegiality among judges, it seems that the same qualities are required of judges to achieve procedural justice for litigants and other “clients” of the court.

Judges in a democratic society owe a duty to do justice, and appear to do justice, for all populations, including people employed by the courts.  Simply said, judges, as well as court managers and other court staff, must practice among themselves what they preach to others.  (This, incidentally, is the thrust behind the National Center for State Courts’ CourTools Measure 9 for trial courts and Measure 7 for appellate courts; see Who Has More Innovative Ideas Than You Do? Your Employees, Made2Measure, September 5, 2010; See also, In Praise of Employee Satisfaction, Made2Measure, November 22, 2006; Friendships in the Workplace Good for Court Performance, Made2Measure, August 14, 2006.)

The traditional concern of judges and a core goal of courts emphasized in legal education is to provide people with a forum in which they can get justice as it is defined by the framework of the law.  Judges pursue this goal through the correct application of law to the facts of a particular legal dispute.  A second goal, one that Tom Tyler associates with the tenets of procedural justice, is “to handle people’s problems in ways that lead them to accept and be willing to abide by the decisions made by the courts.”  The goal requires courts to maintain public trust and confidence, which Tyler says is “the key to maintaining the legitimacy of the legal system.” He acknowledges that procedural justice applies not only to litigants but to other people who work in the court system.

In the Open Society Foundation’s video, Sachs discusses an admirable modus operandi of the justices who sat with him on the South African Constitutional Court.  When a majority had solidified around an opinion, all the members of the Court rallied around the prevailing opinion and actually helped strengthen it, even if they disagreed with its conclusions.  Rather than framing their disagreements in terms of winning or losing, their shared goal of maintaining the Court’s legitimacy and enhancing public trust and confidence in the Court remained tantamount.

This to me is civility, courage and collegiality at its best. And it is at the essence of procedural justice. The manner in which disputes are handled, no matter in which part of the judicial process it is applied and with whom, affects procedural justice.

Ingo Keilitz is a principal court researcher at the National Center for State Courts.

Posted August 6, 2012 by proceduralfairness in Courts

Tagged with , , ,

What’s It All About?   4 comments

So what’s  procedural fairness thing, anyway? Professor Tom Tyler has identified four basic components that comprise procedural fairness and drive public opinion about the courts:

1. Voice:  litigants’ ability to participate in the case by expressing their viewpoint;

2. Neutrality:  consistently applied legal principles, unbiased decision makers, and a transparency about how decisions are made;

3. Respect:  individuals are treated with dignity and their rights are explicitly protected; and

4. Trust:  authorities are benevolent, caring, and sincerely trying to help the litigants—a trust garnered by listening to individuals and by explaining or justifying decisions that address the litigants’ needs.

Now that you know what it is, is it important? It sure seems to be. An extensive 2005 study in the California state courts found that perceptions of procedural fairness were “the strongest predictor by far” of public confidence in the California court system. Simply, if litigants or members of the public perceived that the courts provided fair treatment in the aspects Tyler identified, their overall opinion of the court system was much more positive. This was true across different ethnic groups, across gender, and across income and educational levels.

In addition, procedural fairness plays an important role in improving compliance with court orders. Several studies strongly suggest that when litigants perceive that they’ve been treated fairly, they are more likely to comply with the court orders that follow.

For a useful introduction to procedural-fairness principles, three articles from Court Review, the journal of the American Judges Association, will do the trick:

[Steve Leben]