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Procedural Justice on Appeal   Leave a comment

University of Florida law professor Merritt McAlister has just published an article considering the use of unpublished decisions in federal appellate courts through a procedural-justice lens. The article is in the Michigan Law Review and is entitled, “Downright Indifference”: Examining Unpublished Decisions in the Federal Courts of Appeals. Every appellate judge should read it.

Professor McAlister has filled an enormous gap in the procedural-justice literature: she is the first scholar to bring both data and a procedural-justice lens to the appellate courts. For those who want to start with a summary, here’s the abstract McAlister provided in the article:

Nearly 90 percent of the work of the federal courts of appeals looks nothing like the opinions law students read in casebooks. Over the last fifty years, the so-called “unpublished decision” has overtaken the federal appellate courts in response to a caseload volume “crisis.” These are often short, perfunctory decisions that make no law; they are, one federal judge said, “not safe for human consumption.”

The creation of the inferior unpublished decision also has created an inferior track of appellate justice for a class of appellants: indigent litigants. The federal appellate courts routinely shunt indigent appeals to a second-tier appellate process in which judicial staff attorneys resolve appeals without oral argument or meaningful judicial oversight. For the system’s most vulnerable participants, the promise of an appeal as of right often becomes a rubber stamp: “You lose.”

This work examines the product of that second-class appellate justice system by filling two critical gaps in the existing literature. First, it compiles comprehensive data on the use of unpublished decisions across the circuits over the last twenty years. The data reveal, for the first time, that the courts’ continued—and increasing—reliance on unpublished decisions has no correlation to overall caseload volume. Second, it examines the output of the second-tier appellate justice system from the perspective of the litigants themselves. Relying on a procedural justice framework, this work develops a taxonomy of unpublished decisions and argues for minimum standards for reason-giving in most unpublished decisions.

McAlister categorizes unpublished opinions into four categories: (1) the publishable decision, (2) the memo decision, (3) the avoidant decision, and (4) the Kafkaesue decision:

  • A publishable decision has all the elements of one that could have been published. While perhaps it should have been published, it has an explanation to the parties that satisfies procedural-justice principles.
  • The memo decision is shorter and may leave out some facts—thus making it different than a published opinion. But it still identifies the issues on appeal and explains why the appellant’s arguments succeed (or, more often, fail). So these too satisfy procedural-justice principles.
  • The avoidant opinion is issued in a case involving complex issues and sometimes even after oral argument. But the opinion avoids discussion of the difficult issues. McAlister cites an Eleventh Circuit opinion in which the court heard oral argument on an issue that had split other circuits 6 to 4. After 16 months, the court’s opinion said: “Having heard oral argument and carefully reviewed the record, we find no reversible error in the district court’s order dismissing plaintiff’s § 1983 false arrest claims against the above officers. We therefore AFFIRM the district court’s order of dismissal.” Even a person with limited imagination can tell that the losing party will not have felt that the case—and the claim—were taken seriously. This opinion doesn’t satisfy any procedural-justice principles.
  • The Kafkaesque opinion may be issued in any sort of case and comes with no reasoning whatsoever. Often, it’s a single word: “Affirmed.” McAllister notes that the Eight Circuit issued half of its opinions in this way in the year ended Sept. 30, 2018; federal data showed half of the Eighth Circuit’s opinions that year as unsigned opinions, issued without comment on the merits. These opinions clearly satisfy no procedural-justice principles.

McAlister argues that every opinion should have at least these required elements to meet procedural-justice standards: “(1) identify the issues on appeal; (2) explain the relevant law; and (3) apply that law to key facts.” Even if that adds to judicial workload, she argues, meeting those requirements is necessary to make sure that litigants feel heard: “How can that [increased workload] possibly be a bad thing, given that the decision has persuasive value and affects someone’s life?”

I’ll admit to some mixed emotions reading McAlister’s article. She rightly noted in her article that it filled a rather large gap in the literature. I’d noticed that too, and I have a 37-page draft article (“Getting It Right Isn’t Enough: The Appellate Court’s Role in Procedural Justice”) that I’ve been working on. But even though it’s back to the drawing board for me (sigh), I am thoroughly impressed with—and appreciative of—the work McAlister has done.

It’s far too easy over time for judges to become isolated from the people who read our opinions. And appellate judges are largely isolated from the parties in the cases before us. But a reminder of the procedural-justice implications of a limited work product is important. Professor McAllister’s article should be a game-changer. I hope that appellate judges will carefully consider her recommendations.—Steve Leben

Posted February 18, 2020 by Steve Leben in Uncategorized

A New Blogger—and an Overview of Procedural-Fairness Resources   Leave a comment

I’m happy to introduce a new judge who will help to bring some new perspectives to this Procedural Fairness Blog. And I also want to provide an overview to the resources you can find on our connected websites to learn more about how to make people feel they have been fairly treated in court.

Our new blogger is Judge Pierre Bergeron, who is a judge on Ohio’s First District Court of Appeals, which handles state-court appeals in the Cincinnati area. With just over a year on the bench, Judge Pergeron has those not-yet-distant memories of client reactions to legal proceedings and how things look from the outside. He will add an important new perspective here. He and I plan to provide regular postings throughout 2020.

Let me turn now to what’s available here on this blog and our connected websites. A good starting point is the Bench Card on Procedural Fairness, which we put out in 2018. Cosponsored by the American Judges Association, National Center for State Courts, Center for Court Innovation, and National Judicial College, the bench card puts on two pages the key principles of procedural fairness, tips for trial judges, and links to the leading articles explaining these concepts for a judicial audience.

Beyond that, we have our main website, ProceduralFairness.org, which has links to research papers in both the court and law-enforcement contexts, information about how procedural-fairness concepts have been implemented in courts throughout the United States, and links to other websites in the area.

We also have a set of audio and video resources at ProceduralFairnessGuide.org:

  • On the front page, you’ll find four video scenarios—all based on real situations—that could come up in court or in the courthouse. Each scenario is accompanied by a list of discussion questions and links for more information related to that scenario.
  • On another tab, we have 11 video interviews with national leaders in procedural fairness. These interviews were done on behalf of the American Judges Association. As a starting point, go to the interviews with Tom Tyler and Emily Gold LaGratta. Prof. Tyler has been the academic leader in this area for decades, and he provides an overview of the basic concepts as well as some of the insights he’s gained over his extended research. LaGratta describes the work she did with the Center for Court Innovation in pilot projects and training programs.
  •  On a final tab, we have 9 audio podcasts put together by Justine Greve, who used to be a member of my staff at the Kansas Court of Appeals. The first three podcasts are excerpts from the American Judges Association video interviews. She organizes what the various speakers had to say by topic area. The first one suggests ways judges can improve their communication from the bench; another talks about using procedural-fairness principles in rating and training judges; a third explains how procedural fairness functions as the central measure for judging whether an authority is legitimate. For the other six podcasts, Greve interviewed authors of recent articles of interest in the area. These podcasts will provide a great introduction to their research. If you want more, a link to the publication is also included.

This is only a brief overview of what we’ve got available. In later postings, I’ll talk about some of the other materials you might find of use.—Steve Leben

 

Posted January 27, 2020 by Steve Leben in Uncategorized

New Bench Card for Trial Judges   1 comment

Four national court organizations released a Procedural Fairness Bench card for trial judges today. The bench card can be found under the new “Bench Card” tab on the front page of our website, ProceduralFairness.org. Or you can just click this link to go directly to the bench card. It’s also being printed as the back cover of the issue of Court Review that’s now in the mail to American Judges Association members.

The bench card is a joint product of the American Judges Association, the Center for Court Innovation, the National Center for State Courts, and the National Judicial College.

The bench card tries to answer the key questions a trial judge might have about procedural fairness (also known as procedural justice):

  • What is it? It’s a set of evidence-based practices that lead to better acceptance of court decisions, a more positive view of individual courts and the justice system, and greater compliance with court orders. The bench card begins by explaining six closely connected elements of procedural fairness.
  • Why is it important? Rigorous studies have shown that both acceptance of court decisions and overall approval of the court system are much more closely connected to perceptions of procedural fairness than to other factors.
  • Can it be measured? Yes, and the bench card provides links to measurement tools that judges and courts can use.
  • How do I do it? One full side of the bench card describes specific things trial judges can do to practice procedural fairness in court.
  • Where can I get more information? The bench card also provides links to websites that provide more in-depth materials and to six specific publications.

 

Michigan judge provides clinic on showing compassion to crime victims at sentencing   8 comments

Michigan trial judge Rosemarie Aquilina is presiding over the sentencing hearing for Lawrence Nassar, the former doctor for U.S.A. Gymnastics. But she’s also running what amounts to a demonstration clinic on how to show compassion to crime victims at sentencing.

The New York Times has a front-page article today on the sentencing hearing, now in its second week. The article is filled with statements Judge Aquilina has made to victims:

  • “Thank you. What would you like me to know?”
  • “Leave your pain here, and go out and do your magnificent things.”
  • “You are so strong and brave.”
  • “The military has not yet come up with fiber as strong as you.”
  • “Mattel ought to make toys so that little girls can look at you and say, ‘I want to be her.'” Thank you so much for being here, and for your strength.”

I’ve taught Tom Tyler’s four elements of procedural fairness now for many years: (1) voice, (2) respect, (3) neutrality, and (4) trust/trustworthy authority. Ultimately, you want court participants to feel that they’ve had the opportunity to speak, were treated with respect, and listened to. You also want them to feel that the person wielding the authority is sincere and caring, genuinely out to do the right thing.

Judge Aquilina seems to have hit it out of the park in making sure that victim voices were heard, giving them every ounce of closure that a sentencing hearing can provide, and conveying the very real sense that she sincerely cares about each of them. None of that is easy to do.

I haven’t had a chance to watch the hearings—I have a full-time “day job” as an appellate judge. So I can’t say whether everything she has done was the right thing or the best practice. Legitimate questions can be raised from media accounts on the neutrality element. After all, she still must sentence Nassar, and she must be careful both to be—and to appear—fair in doing so. I am not suggesting she has failed on that point; I simply haven’t seen enough to know. As Professor Stephen Gillers notes in the New York Times article, though, this is a sentencing hearing, not a trial, and Nassar has already pleaded guilty to serious state and federal crimes. So it’s fair for the judge to take that into account at this hearing and even to comment on it.

Set the neutrality issue aside, though, because the significance of this hearing for other judges and those trying to make courts work better comes in the way Judge Aquilina has dealt with the victims. She has provided a model of procedural justice—providing voice, treating victims with respect, and showing that the judge presiding sincerely cares about each of them. And she has done it all in a public courtroom. Those who train judges should carefully look through transcripts or news accounts of this sentencing hearing. Examples of procedurally fair practices abound.

Posted January 24, 2018 by Steve Leben in Courts, Procedural Fairness, Trial Courts

New Book from CCI: To Be Fair   Leave a comment

The Center for Court Innovation has published a new book with 27 interviews of leaders around the country in procedural justice. The book is called To Be Fair: Voices About Procedural Justice, hot off the presses and also posted on the web. The book has a foreword from Prof. Tom Tyler and CCI deputy director Emily LaGratta.

As part of the book’s launch, CCI is hosting a live-streamed panel discussion on Friday, April 21 (9:30-10:30 a.m. EDT). I’m pleased to be part of that discussion, which will also include:

– Barbara Marcille, Multnomah County (OR) Circuit Court; and

– Melba Pearson, American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

If you’d like to join us this Friday morning (9:30-10:30 a.m. EDT) for the procedural-justice panel discussion, here’s the link. Emily LaGratta will be moderating. 

Whether you join us or not, the book may be of interest. Those interviewed include judges, court administrators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judicial-performance evaluators.

Posted April 20, 2017 by Steve Leben in Uncategorized

The Perils of Multitasking: That Oscars Fiasco   1 comment

One of the dangers Kevin Burke and I have talked about with judges around the country is that of multitasking. As we have noted elsewhere, for more than 97% of us, task switching (what really happens when we try to multitask) has a cost in performance. Unfortunately, studies also show that most people think they actually are good at multitasking and more efficient as a result.

On the bench, this can have the negative effect of having a judge less aware of evidence being presented, objections being made, or subtle but important actions by courtroom participants. In a car, we are learning all too frequently that multitasking drivers can cause devastating consequences.

Now it appears that we can add handing out award envelopes at the Oscars to that list.

The Wall Street Journal had an excellent article yesterday telling what we know at this point. And it sure looks like multitasking played a key role that has caused embarrassment and potential repetitional damage to a big accounting firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, and one of its partners, Brian Cullinan.

Cullinan and another PricewaterhouseCoopers partner had what seems a fairly simple—and enjoyable—job for Oscars night: stand backstage and hand the award envelopes for the 24 major-category awards to the presenter right before that person heads on-stage. So, each time the presenter came up from the opposite side of the stage, Cullinan or his partner would have to put the unused envelope in their possession aside and make the next award’s envelope ready to go.

The multitasking problem appears to have happened between the next-to-last award to be announced—best actress in a leading role—and the final award for best picture.

After Emma Stone won the Best Actress Oscar, she came to Cullinan’s side of the stage. He then tweeted out a picture of her standing nearby with the comments, “Best Actress Emma Stone backstage! #PWC.” About three minutes later, Cullinan gave Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway the wrong envelope as they headed on-stage.

The Journal reports that Cullinan doesn’t think his tweeting caused the error. But we know that most people don’t think their performance is degraded by multitasking. Like a judge on the bench—or all of us at one time or another—Cullinan had a single, very important task to focus on. We may never know for sure whether his decision to enjoy watching Emma Stone leave the stage, take a photo, and put out a tweet caused him to make an error that he now deeply regrets. But there’s a strong chance it did, and it’s a lesson we all should take in.

[Note: New details from behind the scenes have been published in Variety and the Washington Post, and they seem to add to the case that there were lots of distractions for Cullinan.]

Posted March 1, 2017 by Steve Leben in Uncategorized

New Resources on Procedural Fairness!   1 comment

I am genuinely excited to announce some new resources on procedural fairness in courts and beyond. These resources can be found at a companion web page, ProceduralFairnessGuide.org, and they have been made possible by the National Center for State Courts, the American Judges Association, and the website ProceduralFairness.org. Let me review what’s now available.

Training Materials. The National Center for State Courts has produced four training videos that can be used to teach judges and court staff about procedural-fairness principles. The situations include an employee at the court clerk’s counter dealing with an upset self-represented litigant, a busy criminal first-appearance docket, and judges on the bench distracted either by paperwork or their computers. Discussion guides are available for trainers who would lead the discussion and train participants. Participant guides offer lists of further resources related to each scenario.

AJA Fairness Interviews. The American Judges Association invited nine national leaders to a meeting on how to improve perceptions of fairness in America’s courts, and we recorded interviews we did with them. Those interviews are now on the web, and they provide a rich background of key procedural-fairness concepts and applications:

  • Start with the interview with Professor Tom Tyler, the leading scholar in the United States on procedural justice in both the court and law-enforcement contexts. He provides an overview of all of the basic concepts along with practical advice for judges in the courtroom. Every new judge should be given a link to this video.
  • Emily Gold LaGratta of the Center for Court Innovation discusses CCI projects to implement procedural-fairness principles in courts around the country as well as specific suggestions individual judges can implement.
  • Professor Terry Maroney discusses how judges can get better at dealing with their own emotional reactions in court, as well as those of other court participants. She also talks about what emotions best enhance–or detract from–perceptions of fair treatment.
  • Utah State Court Administrator Dan Becker talks about the work the Utah courts do on a regular basis to measure the perceived fairness of trial courts throughout the state, as well as how that data can be used to improve court performance.
  • Joanne Slotnik, who headed up Utah’s Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission at the time of the interview, talks about how that commission used procedural-fairness principles as the basis for citizen observers to evaluate the work of Utah’s state trial judges. She also discusses common problems the observers saw and ways judges might improve their on-the-bench performance.
  • Consultant Dale Lefever explains that better relationships lead to better outcomes, which in court means better compliance with legal orders. Drawing on training programs he has done for decades with both doctors and judges, he explains how a judge can build better fairness skills, including how to use videotape to evaluate one’s own performance.
  • Kent Wagner, who heads the Colorado Office of Judicial Performance Evaluation and previously directed judicial-education programs in Colorado, talks about the significance of procedural-fairness principles to the evaluation of judicial performance, the types of comments commonly made about judges in evaluation surveys, and areas judges might focus on for improvement.
  • Bert Brandenburg, the Executive Director of Justice at Stake at the time of the interview, provides background about public opinion of the courts, including what people want from courts and judges. He makes specific suggestions about how judges can respond to the public’s concerns.
  • Carl Reynolds, a policy advisor at the Council of State Government’s Justice Center and formerly the Texas State Court Administrator, talks about measurement tools that can be used to assess court performance in fairness as well as how to train judges about procedural-fairness concepts.

There also are two video statements from state supreme court chief justices about the emphasis placed on procedural-fairness principles in the courts of their states. Then-Alaska Chief Justice Dana Fabe (who recently retired) speaks about the decision to place a poster pledging fairness at the entrance to every courthouse in Alaska. Utah Chief Justice Matthew Durrant talks about the emphasis that Utah has placed on procedural fairness–something that he put front and center in a State of the Judiciary message to the Utah Legislature.

Podcasts. Three audio podcasts are now available synthesizing the AJA procedural-fairness interviews. Prepared by Justine Greve (M.A., American Studies), a staff member with the Kansas Court of Appeals, these podcasts (running 8 to 10 minutes each) provide an easy way to hear the themes from all of the interviews, with clips from several of the interviews in each podcast:

  • Improving Judicial Behavior. Listen to this podcast for tips about how to improve a judge’s communication from the bench.
  • Procedural Fairness in Judicial Training and Evaluation. This podcast focuses on how the principles of procedural fairness can be used to evaluate judges and help them become better at what they do.
  • Procedural Fairness as a Model for Modern Authority. In this podcast, we consider changing ideas about what leads the public to accept an authority figure’s legitimacy. The interviewees argue that procedural fairness is the modern model for the proper exercise of authority, leading those involved to view the judge as worthy of their trust.

In addition to these podcasts made from the AJA fairness interviews, Justine Greve has also done several other podcasts for our website, ProceduralFairness.org. They have been published here on this blog as they have been done, but they will soon be reposted on the Podcast page at ProceduralFairnessGuide.org as well.

I’m very pleased that these materials–generated through the collective efforts of the National Center for State Courts, the American Judges Association, and the contributors to ProceduralFairness.org–are now available. We’ll still be doing some spruce-up to the website where they’re located, but we think the resources you’ll find there will be helpful in advancing the cause of procedural fairness in America’s courts.–Steve Leben

 

Posted October 28, 2016 by Steve Leben in Uncategorized