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

For those of you who have watched the procedural-fairness webinar (see our last blog post), you’ve got a good overview of procedural-fairness principles and how they often play out in court. (If you didn’t watch it, you still can—just go here.) Whether you’ve watched it or not, let’s move next to one of the basic skills every judge needs—the ability to be a good listener.

For most of us, our time in school focused to a large extent on developing reading and writing skills; remarkably little time was spent on listening skills. Yet much of the information presented to a trial judge is presented orally in the courtroom—the judge’s ability to do the job well is greatly dependent on the judge’s listening skills.

So what can you do to improve your listening skills? I’ve got a simple suggestion for you, one that you can accomplish with an initial investment of $17 and less than an hour of your time.

The $17 is for an online self-assessment of your listening skills, which comes from a company called HRDQ. The HRDQ Learning to Listen assessment includes both the self-assessment scores of your strengths and weaknesses and HRDQ’s tips for better listening in three areas:
• Staying focused—you can’t effectively listen if you don’t stay focused on what the speaker is communicating.
• Capturing the message—you’re a better listener if you work to hear what the speaker is actually trying to say, not what you expect him or her to say.
• Helping the speaker—you’re more likely to hear what the speaker is really trying to communicate if you avoid behaviors that would distract the speaker and show that you’re open to the speaker’s expression of his or her message.

To be sure, there are constraints in a legal proceeding on the presentation of information to judges. Sometimes, though, we lose track of how difficult it can be in our daily working environment—the courtroom—for others to present information to us. We also can lose focus on how easy it is for us to become distracted or otherwise to miss out on what is being presented.

But in the courtroom, where litigants and lawyers are presenting information to us every day, they have a right to our attention. Spending the time to take the HRDQ Learning to Listen assessment—and then taking a bit more time to think about how the tips HRDQ provides may play out in the courtroom—will make you a more effective judge for 2014.

Posted December 25, 2013 by Steve Leben in Courts

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Ending the Year Right: Building Procedural-Fairness Skills   Leave a comment

You’ve made it to the Procedural Fairness Blog, so we know you’re interested in this subject. As one year ends and another begins, many of us think about New Year’s resolutions that might lead to self-improvement in the coming year.

So we’ll wind up 2013 and start 2014 on the Procedural Fairness Blog with things judges might do to raise their game from a procedural-fairness perspective.

Step One is going to be easy: Watch a 90-minute online webinar with Minnesota trial judge Kevin Burke on Wednesday, December 11, at 2:00 p.m. Eastern time. Just click the link for registration information.

Kevin has made more presentations on procedural fairness to judges in the United States, Canada, and other countries than anyone else. And he helped to develop the skills of judges throughout the Minneapolis trial bench when he served multiple terms as the chief judge there. While chief judge, Kevin had social scientists on the court staff who studied the impact of procedural-fairness methods on those who came through the courts, including criminal defendants receiving probation orders and civil defendants receiving protection-from-abuse orders.

Kevin’s specific presentation on December 11 will focus on the handling of self-represented litigants, an increasing priority for all judges. Kevin will cover all the basics of procedural fairness; then he’ll apply these principles to the handling of the self-represented.

Kevin’s own docket these days is family-law cases—divorces, child custody, and protection-from-abuse cases—where dealing with the self-represented is a daily occurrence. Join him on December 11 for both an overview of procedural-fairness concepts and some helpful thoughts about effectively dealing with self-represented litigants.

This webinar is sponsored by the Center on Court Access to Justice for All, a project of the National Center for State Courts.

(Note: the link to access the webinar has changed.)

Steve Leben

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.

Court Applications for Free Procedural-Fairness Training Are Due June 14   Leave a comment

​The Center for Court Innovation (CCI) has obtained grant funding to provide training to some trial courts on procedural-justice principles. The project is a partnership between CCI, the National Judicial College, and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

​The training is explicitly based upon Professor Tom Tyler’s work in procedural fairness, and CCI has dubbed the program “The Improving Courtroom Communication Project.” It will attempt to improve procedural justice in a criminal-court setting. The training curriculum will consist of five modules:
• The Role of Procedural Fairness, covering research findings on the impact of procedural fairness in various justice-system contexts;
• Verbal Communication, including how written and oral communication in the courtroom affects fairness perceptions;
• Nonverbal Communication, including how body language, tone, and other nonverbal cues affect fairness perceptions;
• Considering Special Populations, including how communication can be adapted to meet the needs of various court participants; and
• Implementing Procedural Fairness, including group idea-generation and the development of individualized action plans.

​The curriculum was tested in a Milwaukee pilot-training exercise. CCI is now accepting applications and will select three criminal courts to participate in this training program, which will be free of charge to the selected courts. To be eligible, applicant sites must be a local or state court with jurisdiction to hear criminal cases (including multi-jurisdictional courts).

Full information on how to apply for the training can be found at the CCI website. Applications must be received no later than 5 p.m. Eastern time on Friday, June 14, 2013.

Some Thoughts on Procedural Fairness and Oral Argument   Leave a comment

Recently, the United States Supreme Court held an argument about the applicability of the plain-error standard to unsettled issues as of time of trial. It is an important issue of law and as a result the United States Supreme Court appointed Patricia Gilley to represent Mr. Henderson. The transcript begins as follows:

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: We’ll hear argument this morning in Case 11-9307, Henderson v. United States.

MS. GILLEY: Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court: There are three primary points I would like to focus on this morning during my argument. First, the question presented by Mr. Henderson involves a very small subset of cases which are — which come before the Court under Rule 55 — 52(b) each year. These are the cases that were referred to as the special case in the Olano decision. They have errors which, at the time of trial, were unsettled or unclear; but, by the time they made it to the appellate court, they had become clear by a clarifying rule or a decision. Second -­

JUSTICE SCALIA: What — what about the time they come up here? 52(b) applies to every court, does it not?

The transcript is an interesting read, but what you will not find is Ms. Gilley able to state what her two other primary points were—at least in that language. Ms. Gilley got out her first primary point and the barrage of questions from the justices followed.

No one seriously should think that lawyers have a right to summarize their three primary points at oral argument at the United States Supreme Court or at a motion at the trial court level. Oral argument is for the benefit of the judges, who can seek answers to factual and legal questions prompted by the briefs. Lawyers have the chance to make their full argument in their written brief. Few things frustrate a judge more than a lawyer in oral argument just reading from their brief.

But at the same time there is a need for judges to strike the right balance. Voice and respect (two of the essential elements of procedural fairness) ought to cause every judge at every level to occasionally reflect on their “style” during oral argument. Being an effective judge in presiding over an oral argument is a skill as much as it is an opportunity to learn about an individual case.

There are ways to get very good at presiding over an oral argument. Reviewing a video is a terrific step. Perhaps not as good, reviewing a transcript is an option. Asking a colleague to watch (and offering to repay the favor) can give judges insight. Getting feedback from lawyers occurs where there are judicial-performance evaluations, but if you sit in a place where there is no official judicial-performance evaluation, judges can create their own feedback surveys.

In an effort to foster a discussion about how judges should approach oral argument or improve your skills at achieving procedural fairness we asked several judicial experts. Here are their thoughts.

Kevin Burke

Justice Walter Carpeneti sits on the Alaska Supreme Court. He is a former trial judge and former Chief Justice of the Alaska Supreme Court. His comments:

First, while the form of oral argument suggests that it is an opportunity for counsel to present an argument to the court, the reality is that it is an opportunity for the court to have its questions answered. I say this because the briefs contain the parties’ arguments, crafted exactly as they wish to present them. Assuming that the judges read the briefs before the argument, all of the information exchange from counsel to the court has already occurred. (If this assumption is bad, this whole discussion becomes pointless.) Thus, attorneys should not treat judges’ questions as annoying interruptions of their carefully-prepared presentations; they should welcome questions as a window into what the judge is thinking and an opportunity to correct any errors the judge might be about to make.

Second, this reality should not trump the need for courtesy (both to counsel and to one’s judicial colleagues) and for projecting the appearance of fairness. Thus, I’d suggest that an appellate court should ordinarily let counsel make an introduction that (concisely) sets out the attorney’s main points before starting with questions. I’d suggest that interrupting counsel’s answers should be held to a minimum—to be done, for example, only if counsel has misunderstood the question, is rambling in his or her answer, or is obviously trying to obfuscate. I’d suggest that interruption generally is rude not only to counsel, but also often to one’s colleagues on an appellate bench, because interrupting counsel’s answer often means that the questioner has not gotten the benefit of a full answer to the question that he or she asked.

Third, I think that courts ought not to be rigidly parsimonious with time when the court’s questions have taken up all of counsel’s time. While the most able advocates can work their “outline” points (along with their key support for those points) into their answers along the way, not all attorneys are adept at this technique. We should be careful not to leave counsel with the notion that, because the court asked nonstop questions, he or she did not even get the chance to get a word (or a whole argument) in edgewise.

So, my summary: The main purpose of oral argument is to give the judge(s) the opportunity to ask questions and challenge the advocates to defend their positions, but this questioning should take place with courtesy and respect, and the attorney should not be left thinking that he or she was denied the opportunity to be heard.

Judge Rene Worke is a Judge on the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Prior to be appointed to the Court of Appeals she served as a trial judge, including a term as chief judge of her district. Her comments:

When trial court judges ask me about my life as an appellate judge, I always start out with, “If I knew then what I know now!” Appellate oral argument is drastically different than hearing oral presentations at the trial-court level. At the trial-court level, a judge has a myriad of cases on the docket and argument time limits are determined by the individual judges willingness to indulge, as well as calendar backup. As a solo decision-maker, a trial judge is able to ask questions of both counsel in logical sequence, i.e., “What do each of you think is the appropriate date for running of the statute of limitations?” rather than forgetting that particular question when it finally comes to respondent’s turn at the podium. A trial judge is focused on making decisions, moving counsel along, and keeping an eye on the time clock. An appellate judge is focused on clarifying points raised in the brief and deciding what points are most persuasive in an allotted and predetermined time frame—with the luxury of nitpicking the entire record before and after argument.

Appellate oral argument can be tedious. We sit for several cases, all presented on the same day in sequence. Once we are “out there,” we can expect to sit for several hours. Because we are not “solo” judges, we must also be mindful of being courteous to our two colleagues. On occasion, oral argument can turn into ping-pong match with judges eliciting from the lawyers record-facts that support a position they have. These fact-finding questions—or posturing—by an appellate judge can frustrate colleagues—questions can be slanted, redundant, very long, and more like a statement than a genuine question seeking an answer. Lots of judicial energy can be spent to support one’s judicial theory.

And much like solo decision-makers, appellate jurists also bring their personal likes and dislikes to the bench. For example I am known as a by-the-rules judge. When I preside, it is not likely that the time limits will be extended (after all, the lawyers can say it in their briefs and be succinct in presentation), but this is my will. When a colleague is presiding, he or she may do the exact opposite, and I am subject to that timetable. At a recent bench meeting, this very statement was made after a newer judge mentioned that he wished both sides had a rebuttal opportunity (”When you preside you can do what you want.”). Lacking collegiality as a panel, this can occur.

My particular court is courteous, and we haven’t had any specific instances of someone hogging the questions, getting us off track, or so on. However, I talk to other state appellate judges and hear just the opposite occurring. I think most of us agree that one’s professional life can be good or bad depending on who you are teamed with—much like marriage!

A final obstacle to my court experiences is the fact that we travel to hearing sites. Our official chambers may be in one location, but on occasion a judge may choose to work from home or be assigned to work at another site. This requires an additional challenge in scheduling meetings to discuss case outcome.

Personal performance goals: At oral argument, my preference is for the appellant to tell us what we are empowered to do under his theory, e.g., this is a de novo determination by the appellate court—there is no deference to district court—or the trial court erred in [X] and we need to do [Y]. I remind lawyers that I am a former district court judge when they do not concede the discretion afforded to district court. I am most proud of my judicial skills when I hold back and refrain from asking questions—silly Perry Mason style questions. No matter how ridiculous a position, it is not likely that an appellant will concede how wrong his position is by a judge pointing out every error in his case. “You’re right, let me withdraw my appeal,” just isn’t going to happen. I do enjoy spirited debates, but it doesn’t add much to the presentation to point out all shortcomings. Asking less or no questions may even lead to a shorter oral presentation under those circumstances.

In my opinion, tools such as peer or colleague critiques are likely the best mechanism for an appellate judge to get fair feedback. Watching a video will show personal tics or traits on the bench, but the viewer is not likely to discern a questioning style or manner that could be improved.

Eric Magnuson is the former Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court and for decades has been one of the Midwest’s premier appellate lawyers. His thoughts:

It is very difficult to instruct judges on how to conduct oral argument because argument is intended primarily to answer the questions of the court.

Having said that, I tell lawyers preparing for argument to begin with a one-minute declarative statement on why they win. It should not be a list of the arguments that will be made (per your example), but it should be a powerfully concise statement of the ultimate merits. Viz. – “Appellate courts can and do reverse jury verdicts when the plaintiff has failed to prove every element of their legal claim. This is such a case. The judgment cannot stand.” The why behind that argument comes next, but the advocate has staked out his or her territory.

Another example – “The broad discretion of the trial court in framing jury instructions does not include the discretion to inaccurately state the law. That was the case here. My client is entitled to a new trial.” If there is a second issue, a second sentence should suffice. If there is a third, perhaps another sentence, but by then the court may be losing interest, and perhaps a more global statement would be better.

If the advocate takes the first seconds of an argument to state an affirmative proposition, then the rest of the argument is just support. Questions can follow on any topic, but the advocate has made the essence of the argument.

I suspect that this may sound simplistic, but in my experience, a clear and concise statement of the merits right out of the box establishes more control for the advocate, and provides less opportunity for the court to move the argument in a different direction at the very start.

After that, Katie bar the door. But when the time is nearly up, the advocate should repeat the same opening statement—leaving the court with a clear idea of the relief sought and the reason it should be given.

Even the most aggressive judge is likely to let the lawyer get out two to three sentences, particularly if they are positive and forceful.

Where Courts Stand Today with the Public   Leave a comment

One of the reasons to focus on procedural fairness is that the public’s perception of it drives overall public approval of the courts. This is especially important in times like these, in which public confidence in government and other institutions is below historical norms. The United States Supreme Court is historically the leader in public support among courts, so it’s always of interest when Gallup reports the approval level for that court as it begins each term.

This year’s report card raises concern that the perception of the Supreme Court may be dropping on a long-term basis as people view them as increasingly political in their work. Gallup’s September 2012 survey showed less than half of the respondenrs, 49%, approving the way the court was handling its job with 40% disapproving. While that was up slightly from the 46%-45% approval found in a July 2012 survey—taken right after the healthcare ruling—it’s well below the 62% approval the court had in 2000 or the 61% approval it had in 2010.

Behind the number, though, is a partisan divide that has been evident since Bush v. Gore in 2000. Approval by Democrats slipped to 42% in 2001 and stayed in the 40’s until President Barack Obama’s election. But once he began appointing justices, support among Democrats increased to 75% in 2009. Republican approval reached 75% in 2006, but it fell to 49% in 2009. And a further drop in Republican support occurred after the healthcare decision: in September 2012, Republicans disapprove the job Supreme Court is doing (56%-36%) while Democrats approve it (57%-34%). Fortunately, Independents were positive (50%-35%), giving the court an overall approval in positive territory (49%-40%), even though slightly below the 50% mark.

On the plus side, Americans have greater trust in the judicial branch of government than in either the legislative or executive. Gallup’s September 2012 survey also asked how much trust respondents had in each branch, and 67% had a great deal or a fair amount of trust in the judicial branch, while the numbers for the other branches were 56% (executive) and 34% (legislative). And on this question there was less partisan divide: Republicans (62%), Democrats (69%), and Independents (68%) all had relatively good levels of overall trust in the judicial branch of government.

What’s the take-away message here? We’re in a time when public trust in government cannot be taken for granted, and there’s a growing suspicion that judges are political actors. Against this background, it’s vital that judges do our best to provide procedural fairness, which is a key component for maintaining public confidence in our work.

Steve Leben

Posted October 10, 2012 by Steve Leben in Courts, U.S. Supreme Court

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Judging Procedural Fairness in Utah   Leave a comment

The Utah Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission has posted its first formal evaluation of judges based on procedural-fairness criteria. The commission has evaluated the 25 Utah judges up for retention in the November 2012 election.

Utah is the first state to provide detailed evaluations of judges’ behavior in the courtroom based on procedural-fairness criteria. The Utah commission is required by law to provide a public evaluation of each judge up for retention, and the statute setting up the commission requires that its evaluations be based in part on observation of each judge in the courtroom. The commission adopted an administrative regulation providing for a corps of trained citizen volunteers who would observe each judge in the courtroom. Those administrative regulations also require that the judges be evaluated on procedural-fairness criteria: voice (e.g., whether the judge gave parties an adequate opportunity to be heard), neutrality (e.g., whether the judge displayed fairness and provided transparency in rulings), and respect (e.g., whether the judge demonstrated courtesy toward all who appeared before him or her). At least four different observers are used for each judge.

Through this program, Utah became the first state to evaluate judges specifically on procedural-fairness criteria. Two other states—Alaska and Colorado—have used courtroom observers as part of a judicial-evaluation program, but neither provided specific criteria for evaluating the judge’s adherence to procedural-fairness principles.

For the 25 judges up for retention this year, all were approved for retention, though three judges were approved with one dissent in 11-to-1 votes. In two of those cases, although the judges had positive ratings from attorneys, courtroom observers had raised some concerns and at least one courtroom observer had said that he or she would feel uncomfortable appearing in front of the judge.

Skeptics might suggest that when all 25 judges are approved for retention, the evaluation process isn’t meaningful. But there can be effects that are not obvious to us that occur over time in jurisdictions that do formal judicial evaluations: Judges who receive poor scores or would not be recommended for retention sometimes decide to retire or to return to practice rather than seek retention. In such cases, the draft evaluation or interim evaluation they have received does its job without requiring voters to act. (I have no idea whether this happened this year in Utah; I merely suggest that it does happen to some extent in jurisdictions with evaluation programs. But since evaluations are publicly released only for judges who stand for retention, there’s no public record from which we can determine how many judges voluntarily leave the bench based on negative evaluations.)

Adding courtroom observations focused on procedural-fairness criteria can be expected to improve judicial performance in this critical area. Utah’s efforts are to be commended.

For those wanting more information about the process in Utah, take a look at a recent article in the American Judges Association journal, Court Review, by Nicholas H. Woolf, a consultant to the Utah commission, and Jennifer MJ Yim, a commission member, or you can review a paper I presented to the Utah state judicial conference in September 2011.

Steve Leben

Posted September 13, 2012 by Steve Leben in Courts

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