Archive for the ‘Utah’ Tag

A Must-Read State-of-the-Judiciary Address   Leave a comment

State-court chief justices often provide a state-of-the-judiciary address at the beginning of the year, highlighting key issues, accomplishments, and challenges. Although they may address important topics, many of them are of little interest to those outside the state. But this year’s address by Utah Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant should be of great interest to anyone interested in procedural fairness in courts.

Chief Justice Durrant began his speech with a number: 93. That’s the percentage who agreed that they had been “satisfied with [their] experience at court today” in a recent survey taken as litigants and others left Utah courthouses. He also cited other data showing that 90% or more agreed that their court hearing had been fair, that the judge had listened to all sides, that the person understood what had happened, and the person knew what to do next in the case. And 96% felt they had been treated with courtesy and respect.

What makes this a must-read address for the purposes of this blog is not the data, even though it is incredibility positive. What makes it a must-read is that Chief Justice Durrant tied these results to the ongoing work in Utah courts to emphasize procedural fairness. As Durrant put it, “[W]e have taken the research in this area to heart. We have educated our judges and helped them hone these skills.”

Take a look at Chief Justice Durrant’s address. Give some thought to how you might use procedural-fairness principles. In Utah, they have taught these principles to their judges, they have done some measurements to see how courts are performing in this area, and they have reported the results to the public.

Utah is different than most other states because it also has a formal judicial-evaluation program that specifically observes judges in the courtroom to see how well the judge practices procedural-fairness principles. Other judges generally aren’t formally evaluated that way. But the Utah experience is worth considering, and Chief Justice Durrant’s recent speech is a good starting place.

Posted April 27, 2014 by Steve Leben in Courts

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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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The Value of Video   Leave a comment

Golfers, amateur and professional, use video to watch and analyze their golf swing. Many judges who fancy themselves golfers do this (and even some judges who really are good golfers). But it’s the rare judge who uses video to analyze his or her performance as a judge. Yet video can be valuable here too.

A few years ago, Kevin Burke and I did an educational program for the trial judges of New Hampshire. In advance of it, six judges volunteered to be videotaped on the bench for half a day; Kevin and I then reviewed the videotapes and showed some clips to the group. Evaluation forms from the attendees indicated that they learned a lot from watching the videos and then discussing what was done well and what could be improved.

For the volunteer judges in New Hampshire, we had a follow-up assignment: each of them had to note two things they observed that they hadn’t paid enough attention to before seeing the tapes and to identify two things that could be improved in their on-the-bench performance. All of them gained useful insights from this. If you want to see what those judges learned, take a look at Appendix A to this paper (Procedural Fairness in the Courts of Utah), where I’ve set out in full the New Hampshire judges’ responses.

Doing a video self-assessment this way is not difficult. In New Hampshire, each judge advised those in attendance that a video was being made solely for judicial-training purposes, and that only the judge would be shown on the tape. The camera, set up to the side of the courtroom, was turned on and generally ran for about half a day. While the audio in such a setup is not ideal, it’s adequate for this limited purpose. And if a judge wants to go beyond self-assessment, the tape could be viewed by someone else who could give feedback—a communications professor or graduate student, another judge, the judge’s spouse, or someone else whose opinion the judge would respect.

Steve Leben

Posted February 28, 2012 by Steve Leben in Courts

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