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Facilitating Communications Across the Bench

By Marla N. Greenstein

In my over 30 years of working in the field of judicial ethics, I have observed a marked increase in awareness of the need to provide professional distance between judges and lawyers to ensure fair and impartial proceedings. While overall a very good thing, the downside of this professional distance is a lack of needed communication and empathy. Recognizing this communication gulf, judges and lawyers have developed very conscious mechanisms to facilitate communications that in the past were informal.

This issue of The Judges’ Journal provides both an overview of these conscious efforts to facilitate communication and, hopefully, ideas that will spur our readers to join efforts in their own communities or provide the inspiration to create their own. Perhaps the contributions by judges involved in their local American Inns of Court will encourage you to join your local chapter or explore creating one in your area.

Surprisingly, we see that a Civility Code in Pennsylvania has led to increased collaboration by providing comfortable ground rules for communications and emphasizing the special roles that both lawyers and judges play in ensuring a fair and impartial justice system. This shows an example of a Code that enables meaningful communication rather than hinders it.

The Downie and Thumma article highlights the familiar ethical barriers to effective lawyer–judge communications. By becoming aware of the potential issues, judges should gain confidence when speaking at educational programs or encouraging lawyers to provide pro bono services. By knowing the areas to avoid, judges can proceed with confidence in reaching out to the legal community.

Former Justice Edmunds provides the candor and sharpness that only one who has been on both sides of the bench can share. Prompting a thoughtful reflection on the roles that both judges and lawyers play, this creative checklist forces a reassessment of how each of us can approach situations with the blinders of our profession.

Knowing that just one issue of The Judges’ Journal cannot bridge the divide between advocates and those issuing judgment, my hope is that it encourages each reader to take a step forward and a step toward a colleague in our legal profession. Those steps may require that some professional distance always remain, but the distance may be shortened from miles to mere feet. Perhaps along the way, dialogue will lead to more efficient courts and mutual confidence in the lawyers and judges who meet there each day. 

By Marla N. Greenstein

Marla N. Greenstein is the executive director of the Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct. She is also a former chair of the ABA Judicial Division’s Lawyers Conference. She can be reached at [email protected].