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July 01, 2013

The New Tradition of Judicial Outreach: Survey Evidence from the States

By Elisha Carol Savchak and Amanda Ross Edwards

Today’s judges are stepping away from their chambers and engaging with the public. Shunned in the past as inappropriate behavior for judges because of its detrimental effects on judicial legitimacy, outreach has become a widely accepted part, and even a duty, of the judicial role. Here, we describe the results of a nationwide survey of state supreme court justices about the current state of outreach practices across the country.1

The responses show that justices are generally very supportive of judicial outreach and agree that it is an important aspect of their job. As Table 1 shows, 84.9 percent indicated that outreach is “very important,” 13.1 percent termed it “somewhat important,” and only 1 percent called it “not very important.” Also, as Table 2 illustrates, justices are generally willing to accept requests to participate in outreach activities, with 72.7 percent of respondents characterizing their personal policy as to accept most requests to participate in outreach activities, while 19.2 percent accept some of the invitations they receive. But 8.1 percent of respondents indicated that they deal with each request individually and make these decisions on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, the importance of judicial outreach to the individual justice does not seem related to his or her invitation acceptance policy. Of the justices who agree that outreach is very important, some accept nearly all invitations, but some also evaluate requests individually. We conclude that even the justices who are most supportive of outreach activities are not simply willing to accept any invitation they receive.

Justices spend varying amounts of time on judicial outreach. Over 57 percent said they spent more than 60 hours on outreach last year. Most of the remaining respondents performed between 36 and 60 hours. Not surprisingly, the justices who believe that outreach is very important are those spending the most time on it, usually more than 50 hours last year.

Justices revealed various reasons for engaging in judicial outreach. The overwhelming majority want to provide public education about what judges do and how judiciaries work. As one respondent noted, “The lack of basic understanding regarding the role of the judiciary is alarming.” Another desire was to address misconceptions about the judiciary. As a few respondents put it, “Our judges are the best ambassadors for the court system” and “Judicial outreach of all types is the best antidote for the anti-judicial efforts of a few.” This signals that judges realize they may be in the best position to respond to attacks on the judiciary; accordingly, 68.7 percent of our respondents revealed that this is their motivation for engaging in outreach work.

Even more of the respondents, 96 percent of them, indicated that they are motivated to increase public trust and confidence in the judiciary, while 41.4 percent said they want to increase public loyalty to the judiciary. As one justice noted squarely, “I think it is very important for the public to understand the judiciary and its role in our three-branch government. It increases public trust and confidence.”

Justices also have personal feelings of professional obligation. Many respondents took the opportunity to elaborate about their motivations and provided statements such as “I believe it is part of my duty as a constitutional partner in government to participate in outreach and especially civic education” and “I believe it is part of my responsibilities as a public servant.” Accordingly, 76.8 percent of justices responding to our survey indicated that their judicial outreach is a professional obligation. And 72 of those 76 justices who think of outreach as an obligation also agreed that the culture of their court favors outreach activities. Justices who regard outreach as a professional obligation are also very favorable of educating the public. All but one of those justices (75 out of 76) who felt professionally obligated to participate in outreach are also motivated by the need to increase public knowledge and understanding of the judiciary. The same can be said for addressing misconceptions about the judiciary. A smaller, but still significant, portion (59 out of 76) of those who felt professionally obligated to do outreach work also indicated that they are motivated by the desire to clear up public misconceptions about courts and judges.

Some justices indicated other reasons for public outreach. Because the majority of the work in the highest courts involves making policy, outreach may provide a degree of public feedback that would help their decision making, with 19.2 percent of respondents expressing this thought. Others get involved in outreach activities because of reelection concerns. Mingling among the public provides the reelection-seeking justice with the indirect, or perhaps direct, opportunity to campaign. A total of 34 respondents cited personal visibility as a motivator for their outreach work.

Finally, we were also interested in knowing the kind of groups justices engage with and the types of outreach work that they perform. Most survey respondents (69.7 percent) engage in some way with legal groups, such as serving on state bar association committees or in law firms. About half of respondents (47.5 percent) engage in judicial outreach work with education groups, such as student government associations or law school events, and 37.4 percent engage with community groups through activities with sports clubs, humanitarian organizations, and such. To a lesser degree, justices are interacting with business (13.1 percent) and political (6.1 percent) groups.

While interacting with these groups, justices are engaging in different kinds of activities. The overwhelming majority of respondents (62.3 percent) speak at events. And they are spending a lot of time doing so; respondents who speak at events are the same justices who spent more than 60 hours doing judicial outreach in the last year. Justices are almost equally engaged in teaching courses, meeting with individuals, and doing committee work.

This survey gives a current picture of judicial outreach by those judges who sit on their states’ highest courts. It indicates that they strongly favor judicial outreach but still use well-defined channels for accomplishing it. Part of what they define as outreach is traditional participation in normal legal and community activity. Part of it is the personal reaching out necessitated by election or retention processes. And part of it is deliberately educational and aimed at improving the public understanding of the legal system and of judicial work. Though outreach was once dismissed as an undesirable activity for judges, based on what the justices said, this developing area of judicial work is appreciated and well-respected among judicial and legal practitioners today. Future research should address the long-term effects of this new judicial responsibility.

Funding for this project was made available by the School of Public and International Affairs, North Carolina State University in Raleigh.


1. In the summer of 2012, we asked state supreme court justices about their own outreach, broadly defined as “time spent engaging with the public.” Of the 340 currently sitting justices, 99 justices from 42 states responded to our questions, for a response rate of 29.1 percent.