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December 19, 2019 Feature

Judicial Outreach: The Massachusetts Experience

By Judge Paul D. Wilson

At the heart of our American democracy, and vital to its functioning, is the rule of law: the notion that the federal and state constitutions, statutes, and common law apply to everyone lucky enough to live in the United States of America, and that we are all equal under the law. It is our responsibility as judges to apply the rule of law, and to treat everyone equally without regard to personal characteristics, wealth, or government office, in the cases that come before us.

This is not news to the readers of this magazine. Outside the courthouse, though, a surprising number of Americans are unaware of these principles, or do not trust that we as judges actually apply them. One of our most important judicial functions, therefore, is to reach out to our fellow citizens, to educate them about the rule of law and the indispensable role of an independent judiciary in protecting it.

Like the American Bar Association and its Judicial Division, the Massachusetts judiciary takes that role very seriously. The purpose of this article is to highlight some of the judicial outreach techniques that we are employing, including some “how to” advice. Our hope is to inspire a dialogue about how best to reach out to the public, perhaps suggesting techniques that judges in other states have not yet considered. We also hope to hear back from judges elsewhere about strategies that have not occurred to us.

National Judicial Outreach Week

Any discussion of judicial outreach these days must begin with the ABA’s own marquee program. Early in 2017, as judicial decisions came under politically motivated attack from high places, the ABA declared one week in March to be National Judicial Outreach Week (NJOW). In short order, the Judicial Division put together talking points keyed to a powerful slideshow, suitable for presentation to a variety of audiences, explaining how we as judges apply the rule of law to protect our fellow citizens and our democratic principles. The ABA then urged us all to leave our courthouses and go forth, armed with these materials, to talk about these principles.

In Massachusetts, word of NJOW first reached the Superior Court when one of our judges, long active in the ABA, looked to the ABA for help in defending the judiciary in the eyes of the public. On just two weeks’ notice, our Superior Court Public Outreach Committee, through the efforts of its chair, Judge Angel Kelley, and her colleagues, convinced 30 Superior Court judges (out of approximately 80 statewide) to make NJOW presentations, primarily in schools but also at a few civic organizations.

In 2018, we began planning one month earlier, and expanded our reach to cover all seven of our trial courts, sending 118 judges out to speak to 100 school or other groups. When March snowstorms caused school and court closings that might have derailed the program, we cheated; Judge Kelley, now the chair of the newly created Public Outreach Committee of the entire Trial Court, renamed our program “National Judicial Outreach Month,” and we managed to reschedule most of the canceled presentations later in March.

In 2019, we began planning at the beginning of the year and expanded the program even further: 181 judges, from every one of our trial and appellate courts—and a few called back from retirement—stepped off the bench to make 203 presentations to thousands of our fellow citizens. At our own Superior Court, still at the heart of the program, a remarkable 57 of our 80 judges participated. Some judges shared presentation duties with court clerks, probation officers, even court officers. We spoke at middle and high schools, chambers of commerce, councils on aging, cultural groups, religious organizations, community colleges, universities, law schools, vocational schools, Rotary Clubs, Boys and Girls Clubs, and public libraries. Our visits reached from the Berkshires in western Massachusetts to Cape Cod in the east, from Martha’s Vineyard in the south to the New Hampshire and Vermont borders to the north. We visited organizations as varied as the African Community Center of Lowell, John Hancock Insurance Company, the Sportsmen Tennis Enrichment Center, Berklee College of Music, Jack and Jill of Boston, Girls Only Leadership Development Council, and, oh yes, Harvard Law School.

How did we do this? A community outreach effort on this scale requires three things: a message, judges willing to be the messengers, and places to deliver the message.

Thanks to the ABA, the message was the easy part. The NJOW materials were well-suited for presentation to audiences of varying ages and could be easily adapted depending on the levels of sophistication of the attendees. Not every judge employed those materials; some talked about specific topics such as bail, employing instead the bail video we created (described below), while others simply talked a little about their backgrounds, described what a judge does, and then opened the floor for discussion.

Judges being independent types, corralling so many of them to be the messengers did take some effort. Here we were blessed with the support of our chief justices, many of whom made presentations themselves. Their public support made clear to the rest of us that participating in judicial outreach efforts was regarded as a good reason to be out of the courtroom, even during regular court hours. And their good example in making presentations certainly inspired others to participate.

But, as is well known to all of us who are not chief judges, the chiefs may inspire, but the line judges deliver. In this regard, we were lucky in two respects. First, we had an institutional structure in place; the Superior Court had a Public Outreach Committee composed of several judges experienced in these activities who were already encouraging the rest of us to follow their lead. To expand our reach within the judiciary, we soon created a similar committee for the entire Trial Court, stocking it with judges from all seven trial courts. These judges spread the word to their colleagues.

Our second piece of luck was that we had Judge Angel Kelley, an experienced and energetic Superior Court judge with a strong interest in teaching. I cannot overstate the importance of having one leader committed to public outreach efforts, as Judge Kelley certainly is.

The third aspect of a successful public outreach program may be the most difficult: locating the schools and organizations anxious to host a visit from a judge and then organizing those visits. Some of us already knew where we wanted to speak and had the contacts to arrange it, but many of us did not. Once again, the support of our chiefs was helpful, particularly in allocating a scarce resource to the effort: the time of administrative staff. Reaching out in many directions, Judge Kelley and the Trial Court Public Outreach Committee and the staff put together a list of more than 2,000 possible hosts. They sent emails to each school or organization, offering a visit by a judge “to discuss the importance of an impartial independent judiciary governed by the Rule of Law and the court’s commitment to equal access to justice for all.” The response was gratifying, and, through a complicated geographic algorithm known only to Judge Kelley, we soon received our orders about where to appear and when. The logistical effort was considerable, and we are much indebted to the staff members, and to Judge Kelley, for keeping things on track.

Our goal for the next National Judicial Outreach Week, in March 2020, is 100 percent participation by Massachusetts judges. We got almost halfway there this year, so perhaps that lofty goal is attainable someday.

Judicial Speakers Bureau

One useful outgrowth of the 2019 National Judicial Outreach Month in Massachusetts has been the launch of “Justice for All—Massachusetts Judicial Speakers Bureau.” This is a portal for requests for judges to speak or to participate in community forums. Retired and sitting judges volunteer to serve as speakers. Having an active directory of judges willing to participate in speaking engagements throughout the year enables us to continue the work of protecting judicial independence and encouraging support of the rule of law. The participation of retired judges is especially important because it is critical to respond quickly to attacks on judicial independence, particularly when sitting judges cannot speak.

Programs in the Courthouse

Sending judges out of the courthouse and into the community is a powerful way of increasing public understanding of what courts do and why their work is important. Sometimes, though, we take the opposite approach; rather than sending the judge out into the community, we invite the community into the courthouse.

One example is our “This Is Your Court” programs. On a particular day in the fall, we encourage the public to come into our regional multicourt buildings where judges and other court staff make presentations about the jurisdiction of each court, how the courts operate, and what particular court employees do. Community service providers set up tables with information and are there to speak with attendees.

Other examples are in-the-courthouse presentations on particular substantive topics of interest to segments of the public. We encourage different trial courts with overlapping expertise to collaborate on these programs. For example, the Land Court and the Housing Court have presented a joint program covering tax foreclosures, mortgage reformation, and legal issues arising from house-sharing programs such as AirBnB. The Probate and Family Court collaborated with the Juvenile Court on a program about bullying and healthy relationships.

Our primary goal in opening the courthouse door in this fashion is to educate the public. But these programs also ease the apprehension associated with going to court, by bringing members of the public into the courthouse at a time when they are not necessarily involved in some way in litigation. We hope, therefore, that they come to see the courthouse as a less ominous place, and to view judges and court staff as people with expertise, useful information, and understanding and compassion for those who need the assistance and intervention of the court.


The best judicial outreach efforts involve personal contact between judges and members of the community. But other techniques, for instance, involving the use of video technology, also have their advantages. First, one video can be shown to community groups on many occasions and can be available for viewing by individual citizens on the internet. Second, video technology can allow for more elaborate presentations, for example, involving role-playing.

With these advantages in mind, the Massachusetts Trial Court recently created a video explaining the purposes and functioning of cash bail, a hot topic because of recent publicity given to crimes committed by defendants released on bail while awaiting trial. This video was a true group effort, involving judges on three of our trial courts—the Superior Court, the District Court, and the Boston Municipal Court—as well as a member of our state’s highest court, members of the bar, and Suffolk University Law School, with its media resources and expertise.

The bail video begins with a brief introduction by Justice David Lowy of the Supreme Judicial Court, explaining in layperson’s terms how bail is intended only to ensure the defendant’s future appearance in court, unless the prosecutor requests a dangerousness hearing. Then, having just heard about what a judge can and cannot consider in setting bail, the viewer is invited to watch three fictitious bail hearings in which prominent prosecutors and defense attorneys argue before actual judges. At the end of each video, rather than issuing a decision, the judge turns to the viewer and says, “Now you be the judge.” Putting the viewer into the shoes of the judge, of course, invites the viewer to think like a judge, constrained by the law and balancing various interests. Judges who have showed these videos during public outreach presentations have reported that they often spark sophisticated discussions with citizens who now more fully appreciate what the judge can and cannot do, or should and should not do, in setting bail. (These materials can be found at

Listening Sessions

While the primary purpose of judicial outreach is to educate the public, out-of-court contact with members of the community can also educate the judge. Some people think of judges as august personages sitting in ivory towers (or perhaps granite or brick towers), far removed from the concerns of everyday people. In fact, it is partly to dispel the impression that we take off the robe, leave the courthouse, and interact with our fellow citizens. In so doing, we often learn much that we otherwise would not know about conditions in the community, misconceptions about the court, things the court could be doing better, and other topics.

Rather than making such judicial education a mere side effect of judicial outreach, in Massachusetts we are sometimes making it the centerpiece. Judges are more frequently setting up events deliberately intended as listening sessions. This can be done in the courthouse, during court hours, or in the evening, inviting members of the public to express their views on what they have observed or experienced, or what they think, about the operation of that particular court, or courts in general. Listening sessions can be publicized by reaching out to community groups, by asking court employees to spread the word to people they encounter inside or outside the courthouse, and tapping into the organic network of service providers and community partners. The “listeners” need not only be judges, but can also include clerks, court officers, probation officers, and even representatives of the bar, civil or criminal or both.

Listening sessions can be even more fruitful when held outside the courthouse. Our judges have organized them at public libraries, for example. At one session, a person who had sought a domestic violence restraining order spoke, as did another person who had been a defendant in a different restraining order proceeding. The judge conducting the listening session (who had no involvement in either of these restraining order proceedings) not only accepted their feedback about their interactions with the court but used their comments as a way of emphasizing that judges must listen to both sides in every case.

Listening sessions can be directed to specific groups, or to particular users of the court system. For instance, we recently held a listening session for inmates at a House of Correction. It is hard to imagine an audience that could provide feedback more useful to us than pretrial detainees and inmates serving sentences. From the thoughtful questions and comments, the listeners learned that inmates are very concerned about meeting the expectations of their probation or parole officers once they are released. This commonly expressed apprehension has inspired another video production project: With the assistance of two judges, the Probation Department is creating informational videos about probation for inmates and the public, addressing what inmates need to succeed upon reentry into the community to ensure law-abiding conduct and the protection of the public.

Sometimes hosting a listening session requires a thick skin. But the reward for being an active, willing, and respectful listener is far greater than any momentary discomfort. Inevitably we learn something that would not have occurred to us otherwise, and sometimes that newfound knowledge will result in a small adjustment in court operations that significantly improves the experience for the public walking through the courthouse doors.


Unlike officials in the executive and legislative branches, judges generally “speak” only through our written decisions. But few people have the opportunity to read those decisions. Thus, the views of many, about what we do and why we do it, are often influenced by inaccurate assertions of those with personal or political agendas.

Ethical strictures prevent us from engaging in political debate about specific decisions that we make. But our ethical rules embrace the responsibility of judges to initiate and participate in community outreach activities to promote public understanding and confidence in the administration of justice. It is vital that we do this by taking every opportunity to reach out to the public to describe the rule of law that governs our society, and to emphasize the indispensable role of an independent judiciary in ensuring that all our fellow citizens are subject to the same laws and are treated equally in their application.

Judicial outreach can also be personally satisfying. At the conclusion of my first NJOW presentation, to all the ninth graders at Lawrence Regional Vocational Technical High School, a female student approached me to say thank you and to shake my hand. As she did so, she said, very seriously: “You know, someday I’m going to be a lawyer. In fact, someday I might even be a judge.” I do not know if she will live up to those aspirations, although I certainly hope she does. I do know, though, that it was the presence of a real judge in her high school auditorium that inspired her to consider those possibilities. And I also know that her classmates, who proved to be active participants in an interesting discussion of the rule of law, left that auditorium with a little more knowledge about the importance of an independent judiciary to our American democracy.

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Judge Paul D. Wilson

Judge Paul D. Wilson has been a justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court since 2012. For the 30 previous years, he practiced law at Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo, P.C., in Boston. He can be reached at [email protected].