I signed up to be a mentor to a Chicago Public School student the same year that I became a judge. I thought the two had nothing to do with each other. I was wrong. The concept of the mentor program was simple: In a community that includes minority students, first-generation college hopefuls, and financially disadvantaged youth, a college-educated mentor commits to guiding one high school student from junior year through the next three transformative years of his or her life. I was matched with a young woman who was interested in law, and, when I asked her why, she told me about watching her brother struggle through his interactions with the court system. In her words, “The judge was so mean. He treated my brother like he wasn’t even a human being. I know my brother made some mistakes and did some things wrong. But he was trying to take responsibility. And the judge acted like it didn’t even matter. Like he didn’t even matter.” My mentee told me she wanted to be a lawyer because, as she was watching the court proceedings from the gallery, she wanted the system to have a humanity it lacked.
At our conferences, in our journals, and through judicial education classes, we learn this anecdotal experience is not a standalone problem and that public trust and confidence in our courts is eroding. While some may have been impacted by negative personal experiences in court, others are inundated by media portrayals of surprising sentences, verdicts, and civil judgments. All have seemingly increased the belief that our system is unfair and unjust. I believe that judicial outreach is a necessary weapon in the battle against this growing public mistrust and that judges have a vital role in undoing the negative attitudes toward courts by taking the positive action of engaging in outreach with the public. Without it, we leave the public to learn about our courts from water cooler discussions on how to evade jury duty, ill-tempered television judges that inevitably mock litigants, and social media blurbs where criticism of a complex decision is distilled to the most salacious 140 characters.
Judicial outreach is a public service whereby judges educate the public about the courts and, in a larger sense, aim to erase the divide between those on the bench and those in front of it. As the National Association of State Judicial Educators’ (NASJE) principle concerning outreach states, “Judicial Branch education should help all judicial branch personnel develop skills in public outreach, community collaboration, community leadership and public service.”1
Outreach is widely regarded as a professional obligation, and courts across the country are creating a culture of encouraging outreach, if not specifically requiring it. The ABA Model Code of Judicial Conduct describes outreach as proper and valuable work for judges promoting public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary.2 Further, the code dictates that judges should participate in activities that promote ethical conduct among judges and lawyers, support professionalism within the judiciary and the legal profession, and promote access to justice for all,3 and should initiate and participate in community outreach activities for the purpose of promoting public understanding of and confidence in the administration of justice.4
Judges are uniquely qualified to engage in extrajudicial activities that concern the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice, such as by speaking, writing, teaching, or participating in scholarly research projects. In addition, judges are permitted and encouraged to engage in educational, religious, charitable, fraternal, or civic extrajudicial activities not conducted for profit, even when the activities do not involve the law.5
In turn, judges are uniquely qualified to mend public perception of our judicial system and highlight the service aspect of our roles as public servants.
Enhancing public knowledge about the function of our courts and increasing the visibility of our judges through judicial outreach are invaluable to restoring trust and confidence in our judicial system. The overwhelming purpose for engaging in outreach activities is to educate the public about what judges do and the mechanics of the judiciary.6 In speaking on the constitutional role of the courts, the value of judicial independence, and the fundamental importance of the rule of law, we can educate the public on what is commonly referred to as the least visible branch of the government. Specific to our individual courts, we can educate citizens on how our courts work, the types of cases we hear, courtroom behavior, and courtroom procedures. These outreach efforts allow us to take an active role in civic education. “After all, the judge is on the bench in the first place (we trust) because of superior legal background, expertise, or credentials.”7
These public appearances not only present our courts in a favorable light but also boost the judiciary’s image by allowing the public to interact with our most impressive resource—our judges. While we do our best inside the courtroom to convey our commitment to fairness, impartiality, and the administration of justice, we are hampered by institutional barriers including excessive costs, long delays, archaic procedures, stilted language, and the crushing pressure of time. Rarely does someone end up in court as a result of entirely positive personal experiences and, within this adversarial climate and intimidating atmosphere, our attempt to demonstrate neutrality can make us seem remote, unsympathetic, arrogant, or indifferent. Outside of the courtroom we can meet these stereotypes and general suspicion about judges head on. We can directly communicate to citizens that they are heard, respected, and capable of getting a just result. We can transform judicial backlash by being the face of a thoughtful, caring, concerned, fair, impartial, empathetic, dedicated, and hard-working judiciary.
If courts enjoy greater legitimacy and higher public opinion as a consequence of such personal interactions between judges and the public, then we are affecting the inner workings of our courts through our outreach efforts. Why is public buy-in so important? Because promoting trust and confidence in our judicial system is crucial to maintaining public confidence in our decision-making ability, improving public loyalty to our civic process, ensuring compliance with our orders and decisions, and increasing perceptions of equal access and equal justice. With all due respect to our appellate jurists, because the “rightness” or “wrongness” of our decisions can only be measured subjectively, public trust and confidence may be the ultimate measure of court performance. If there are over 45,000 judges in the United States8 striving to better our communities and listen to the concerns of our citizens, we can bury the misperceptions created by a handful of seemingly aberrant verdicts and sentences.
If elevating the status of the judiciary seems a lofty goal, I encourage you to consider the personal rewards of public service. First, public engagement is good for your judicial perspective. Engaging in a meaningful way, members of the community may provide a more realistic and practical perspective on which to base judgments. What better way to study the “reasonable person” standard than to engage with reasonable people? Second, outreach can help us recognize, challenge, or even alter our implicit biases. If implicit or unconscious bias comes from the culmination of our direct and indirect experiences, then adding to those experiences and listening to the experiences of others, through judicial outreach, can change our perceptions at a fundamental level. Third, increased interaction with lawyers and other members of our communities can help our judicial temperament. I believe that the more positive interactions we have within our communities (legal and otherwise), the more connected we will feel to the parties and representatives who appear before us and the easier it will be to reduce the tension in our adversarial process.
The creation of this type of professional, but not remote, rapport may increase hearing efficiency, promote settlement, and even create a more pleasant and safe environment for litigants and courtroom personnel alike. “It takes superhuman patience to sit through a long day of personal conflict, exacerbated by raw emotion and attitudes that put greater effort on inflicting personal pain than on resolving disputes . . . the essence of judicial temperament, however, is the ability to diffuse emotional responses and facilitate reasonable ends.”9 Finally, judicial outreach can help us prevent isolation, increase job satisfaction, and help us maintain the sense that what we do is important to the people we serve. “Complete separation of a judge from extrajudicial activities is neither possible nor wise; a judge should not become isolated from the society in which the judge lives.”10
If you are inspired for professional or personal reasons to engage in or increase your judicial outreach efforts, there is a wide range of public events and community engagements from which to choose a topic suited to your personality, temperament, interests, and talents. Your court itself may have a judicial outreach program, and, if it does not, you are most likely invited to engage in speaking opportunities by state and local bar associations, law schools, and legal organizations. You may also seek to foster legal education through colleges and universities, veterans’ groups, chambers of commerce, libraries, service clubs, or senior centers. You may wish to visit grade schools, middle schools, or high schools to teach law-related lesson plans, judge debates or mock trials, advance civic pride, or reach at-risk youth with stories of the consequences of life choices.
You may want to lend your efforts to assisting with written legal information available to legal service groups, organizations that work with limited English proficiency populations, shelter residents, prison release and re-entry programs, or other humanitarian organizations. Or you may want to invite students to your courthouse to meet lawyers, observe court proceedings, and have direct conversations with judges. Perhaps you could invite the local “court watchers” to coffee in your court’s cafeteria to discuss their perceptions of the process. The point is, if you do not enjoy public speaking, engage through writing. If you do not like writing, engage through listening. “Participation in both law-related and other extrajudicial activities helps integrate judges into their communities, and furthers public understanding of and respect for courts and the judicial system.”11
While we see our brothers and sisters on the bench as more than any one experience, one headline, or one side of one story, without judicial outreach the public may not. Both our educational efforts and our increased public service within our communities will help create a more accurate picture of who we are and what we do. What if it was a judge who was criticized for being too lenient to a perpetrator of a hate crime, but also a judge who helped clean up the vandalism? What if it was a judge that upheld evictions on Christmas Eve, but also a judge who spent the holidays volunteering at a soup kitchen? What if it was a judge that treated your brother like he was less than human, but also a judge who was there for you when your brother died?
I met my mentee’s proud older brother at her high school graduation. The next time I saw him, just after her first set of college finals, was at his funeral. As a victim of gun violence on the streets of Chicago, his death and, in turn, his life are susceptible to being regarded as no more than a faceless statistic. But he was a human being, and he mattered to his sister, to his family, to his community, and to me. I continue to see him in every scared, confused, angry, frustrated, or troubled person who enters our courtroom. I share this story with you, as a form of judicial outreach, to remind us of our humanity and to encourage us to not let the bench come between us and the communities we serve.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and not those of the Merit Systems Protection Board or the United States government.
1. Lee Ann Barnhardt, Public Outreach and Judicial Education, Nat’l Ass’n St. Jud. Educators (Mar. 28, 2013), http://nasje.org/public-outreach-and-judicial-education.
2. Model Code of Judicial Conduct r. 1.2 (Am. Bar Ass’n 2011).
3. Id. at r. 1.2 cmt. 4.
4. Id. at r. 1.2 cmt. 6.
5. Id. at r. 3.1 cmt. 1.
6. Judicial Outreach Resource Center, Am. Bar Ass’n, https://www.americanbar.org/groups/judicial/committees/judicial_outreach_network/judicial_outreach_resource_center (last visited Sept. 5, 2019).
7. Jones v. Page, 76 F.3d 831, 850 (7th Cir. 1996).
8. Judges and Hearing Officers, Bureau Lab. Stat., https://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/judges-and-hearing-officers.htm (last modified Sept. 4, 2019).
9. In re O’Dea, 622 A.2d 507, 516 (Vt. 1993).
10. Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges Canon 4 (1973) (Judicial Conference of the U.S. amended 2019).
11. Model Code of Judicial Conduct r. 3.1 cmt. 2 (Am. Bar Ass’n 2011).