Building Public Trust and Confidence

By Sobel, Allan D. | Judicature, September/October 2005 | Go to article overview

Building Public Trust and Confidence


Sobel, Allan D., Judicature


I was invited Io speak in Aspen, Colorado on October 3 at a workshop organized by four academic institutions engaged in biomedical research to inform their strategic planning process for building public trust and confidence in such research: Baylor College of Medicine; Johns Hopkins University; University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center; and the University of Washington. Others who spoke at the workshop about building trust and confidence in their fields included the former public affairs director for Conoco; the vice-president, safety, security and quality assurance of United Airlines; the president of the American Meat Institute; and the director of media relations at the Nuclear Energy Institute. What follows is an edited version of my principal remarks.

The founder of AJS, Herbert Lincoln Harley, had an idea. Why not build public trust and confidence in the judicial branch of government by creating an organization that would tackle the issues impacting public trust and confidence-those most important to the general public-by bringing to the table, in addition to legal professionals, those who are not law trained but care deeply about the third branch of government. After all, the judges and lawyers do not own the courts. The courts belong to and exist for the benefit of the public. Harley reasoned that by bringing the public to the table, reforms would be better informed and, at the same time, the public could be educated by the legal professionals about constitutional and other legal requirements that may prohibit or mandate certain judicial procedures.

From the date of its incorporation in 1913 to today, AJS has been an open membership organization, although legal professionals account for the largest percentage of members. AJS brings a public perspective to justice system issues and has the mission to secure and promote an independent and qualified judiciary and a fair system of justice. Why is that the mission? For one reason-to maintain and build public trust and confidence in the judiciary.

Let me turn to AJS's current involvement in the world of science. During the past decade, AJS became increasingly concerned about the adverse impact DNA exonerations were having on public trust and confidence in the justice system, and disturbed by knowledge that factually innocent people were being wrongfully arrested, prosecuted, convicted, incarcerated and in a few cases sentenced to death. You have no doubt seen reports of such matters in the media. Please understand that it is not clear that all of those who were released from custody and had the judgments of conviction in their cases set aside as a result of DNA testing are indeed factually innocent. In some cases, the DNA evidence simply raised a reasonable doubt as to guilt. Nonetheless, many of those convicted are factually innocent and when one looks at the underlying causes of their wrongful convictions a number of systemic defects are discovered.

AJS held a three day national conference in Alexandria, Virginia in January, 2003, to examine ways of preventing such injustice. The conference brought together people of good faith from science, law enforcement, the prosecution and defense of criminal cases, the judiciary and state legislatures, and victim rights organizations to study the underlying causes of wrongful convictions. There was a

recognition, guided by the keynote remarks of former Attorney General Janet Reno, that as a society we have failed to fully embrace the knowledge of science in developing the policies and practices of our criminal justice system, and that by doing so we can reduce the number of future miscarriages of justice.

Therefore, at the conclusion of the conference, AJS began to explore and develop support among all interest groups for the creation of a multidisciplinary institute that would bring to bear the best scientific information in determining appropriate reforms to prevent miscarriages of justice. …

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