Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Judicial Outreach Initiatives

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Judicial Outreach Initiatives

Article excerpt

These remarks address judicial outreach initiatives, specifically what courts have done and are doing in this area, what research has been conducted, what action programs have been initiated and what we in the court system have learned from these endeavors. I will be examining efforts made primarily by judges and courts to educate the public about the court system and how those efforts create the opportunity for two-way communications between the court and the public. Though I will refer to some programs that have been implemented in judicial districts throughout the country, I will focus primarily on the efforts currently taking place in California to institutionalize community outreach and court/community collaborative efforts into the life of the court.(1)

I have been involved in these kinds of projects throughout the seventeen years that I have served on the bench. I have served as Chair of my own court's Courts and the Public Committee, and I currently serve as a Chair of the California Judicial Council's Special Task Force on Court/Community Outreach which was established by our state's Chief Justice in May 1997 and as Co-Chair of our Community Focused Strategic Planning Implementation Committee.

Community outreach by judges is not a recent phenomenon.(2) For many years, across the nation, there have been judges who have recognized the importance of these kinds of endeavors.(3) They saw the necessity for such efforts, and they held the belief that the judicial branch of government could and should commit our limited resources to them.(4) These judges recognize that we receive respect from the public and that many hold us in high esteem as highly qualified and wise public officials.(5) However, we also recognize that we cannot be sanguine about the public's perception of judges.(6) We see from past surveys and from the results presented at this conference that although judges may be held in higher esteem than some others involved in the justice system, a thirty-two percent confidence rating certainly is not anything to write home about. We found that in both California and national surveys of public attitudes and perceptions of the justice system that there are widely held beliefs that the court system may strive to be fair but sometimes is not. Additionally, the perception of the justice system is that it favors the wealthy and well-connected over the less wealthy and disadvantaged.(7) Although we may believe them to be unfair, unfounded, or based on ignorance, we also find that many of these beliefs are validated by our own experience. Some believe that judges are soft on crime, do not work hard, and that there is unequal justice for ethnic and cultural minorities and women. The suspicion about the court and government authority may also be carried over by the new arrivals to our nation who may have left repressive political and judicial regimes.(8) Additionally, there are crises in perceptions brought on by sensationalized trials and the occasional incidents of judicial misconduct that tend to color the way the public views all of the judiciary.(9) The existence of these beliefs were found in California surveys attendant to our 2020 Commission Report.

Although I recognize the problems inherent in anecdotal evidence, I have seen these views exhibited in my own personal experience as well. Most notably, some years ago, I sentenced a wealthy landlord to live in his own apartment building, and apparently that was the first time such a sentence had been imposed.(10) I received over 400 letters from practically every state of the union, and there were editorials in all the major newspapers in the United States.(11) The one comment that was consistent in the letters and editorials was how great it was to see a wealthy individual finally being held accountable by the court.(12) These widespread attitudes and perceptions have been presented and still may be open to debate. The conclusion that we can draw from the surveys is that while many people continue to hold judges in high esteem, it is also clear that the belief that our government operates with the presumption of innocence and good will essentially has disappeared and, as a result, negative perceptions and misperceptions based on ignorance will not disappear as long as the judiciary chooses to ignore them. …

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