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December 19, 2019 Feature

Maintaining Public Commitment to the Rule of Law

By Judge Russell Carparelli (Ret.)

This independence of the judges is equally requisite to guard the Constitution and the rights of individuals from the effects of those ill humours which the arts of designing men, . . . sometimes disseminate among the people themselves, and which, though they speedily give place to better information and more deliberate reflection, have a tendency in the mean time to occasion dangerous innovations in the government and serious oppressions of the minor party in the community.

Each day, more than 30,000 judges throughout America preside over more than 100,000 proceedings in which they preserve the rule of law and equal treatment under law. But as Alexander Hamilton warned, "designing" individuals and groups often seek to undermine the independence of the judges who do so. And with the advent of social media memes, the ability of individuals and groups to stir and mislead public sentiment is more constant and pernicious than ever. 

Judges and lawyers have a unique professional responsibility to promote public trust in our judicial system and to preserve public commitment to maintaining its fairness and impartiality. Perhaps the most effective way to preserve public commitment to fair courts is for judges to interact with their communities outside the courtroom so the public can be inspired by their integrity and unwavering commitment to the rule of law. Indeed, many judges and lawyers do so on a regular basis. Many more of us need to join them, not to defend specific rulings, but to promote confidence in our judicial processes and principals. This article identifies gateways to available resources and outreach opportunities and provides ethical guidance and presentation tips and techniques.

Gateways to Available Resources

Whether you are reaching out for the first time or looking for new ideas, you don't need to reinvent the wheel. The ABA and the National Conference of State Courts have identified public education materials from around the country and provide links to them on their websites.

ABA Judicial Outreach Network

Start by going to the web page for the Judicial Outreach Network Committee of the ABA Judicial Division. The Outreach Network has primary responsibility for encouraging judges to participate in other outreach programs about the rule of law, the courts, and judges. It does so through the Judicial Outreach Resource Center and administration of National Judicial Outreach Week.

The Judicial Outreach Resource Center

The Judicial Outreach Center is a gateway to just about everything on the internet pertaining to the courts and the rule of law. Among other things, you'll find links to the ABA Division for Public Education's Constitutional Materials and its Resources for Judges and Lawyers. Click on the link to the Guide to Educating the Public About the Law. There you can download a 20-page pamphlet titled "Educating the Public about the Law: Guide for Individual Lawyers."

You'll also find links to decades of Law Day materials, including past planning guides and dialoguesas well as lesson plans appropriate to elementary, middle, and high school classes. Of particular relevance are the dialogues on the courts and the rule of law.

Click on "ABA Division for Public Education Constitution Materials" and you'll find resources about the Constitution that you can use on Constitution Day and throughout the year.

More Resources

The Judicial Outreach Resource Center also includes links to other outstanding information and resources including information about more than 25 federal and state outreach programs. There you can find your court system's programs and get ideas from programs in other states. You'll also find several outstanding and award-winning programs, including:

  • the Federal Judges Association's "Teaching Tools for Civics Education";
  • the National Association of Women Judges' "Informed Voters Project"; and 
  • the Florida Bar Association's "Benchmarks: Raising the Bar on Civics Education." 

NCSC Gateway

You can also go to the National Center for State Courts' website at There you can search for "civics education resource guide." On the NCSC home page, you'll also see a link to "Resources by Topics," from which you can browse resources by topic, category, and state. And further down the NCSC home page, you'll see an animated video about the role of state courts. 

Outreach Opportunities

The voices of judges are heard in communities throughout the year as individual judges talk about diverse legal and historical subjects. But more than any other day of the year, judges and lawyers reach out to the public on three occasions. These events are particularly effective because large numbers of Americans are meeting many judges and lawyers and receiving presentations on the same topics. Choruses of voices singing the same tune! 

National Judicial Outreach Week

The ABA Judicial Division has established the first 10 days of March each year as National Judicial Outreach Week. During Outreach Week, judges and lawyers focus public attention on the rule of law and its role in preserving liberty. To learn how you can participate and add your voice to preserving the rule of law, go to the Judicial Outreach Network's web page or search the Web for "National Judicial Outreach Week." There you will find the National Judicial Outreach Week Information Packet, which explains the how and why of Judicial Outreach Week. It also includes a link to a concise PowerPoint presentation entitled "Preserving the Rule of Law" and speaker notes you can use to adapt the presentation to your own style and preferences. The presentation has been carefully crafted to provide an understandable description of the rule of law and to foster discussion between speakers and audiences. 

Law Day

In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed May 1, 1959, as the first Law Day. For more than 60 years on Law Day and the first week of May, public attention focuses on a selected aspect of the law.

Constitution Day

On Constitution Day, September 17, many judges visit with members of their communities to help Americans better understand the U.S. Constitution.

The Ethics of Public Outreach

The Comments to Rule 3.1 of the Model Code of Judicial Conduct confirm that 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" and that judges' "[p]articipation in both law-related and extrajudicial activities helps integrate judges into their communities and furthers public understanding of and respect for courts and the judicial system."

Consistent with this recognition, Rule 3.1 permits judges to participate in lawful extrajudicial activities as long as those activities do not interfere with the proper performance of their judicial duties; lead to frequent disqualification; appear to undermine the judge's independence, integrity, or impartiality; or appear to be coerciveFor more information about the ethics of public statements and judicial outreach, download "When Judges Speak Up: Ethics, the Public, and the Media."

Of course, when reaching out to the public, judges must not make public statements that might reasonably be expected to affect the outcome or impair the fairness of a pending matter in any courtWhen cases, controversies, or issues are likely to come before them, judges must not make pledges, promises, or commitments that are inconsistent with the impartial performance of the adjudicative duties of judicial office.

Tips and Techniques

Keep It Simple

Though lawyers and judges thrive on precision and details, audience members might not. Assume that an audience will pay attention, understand, and remember only two concepts from a 30-minute presentation. Keep it simple.

Have a Succinct Objective/Takeaway

What would audience members say if someone asked them what they learned from your presentation?

Build from Shared Values

Audience members will hear and interpret your comments through the prisms of their own values. If your message is consistent with those values, they will accept it and be inspired by it. If it is contrary to those values, they will reject it and find fault with it. Therefore, build your message on widely held fundamental American values such as fairness, impartiality, equal treatment, freedom, and individual rights.

Look Through the Eyes of the Audience

As you develop your presentation, put yourself in their shoes and think about what you would want to hear if you were they.

Tell Stories

Use stories as examples and increase audience retention. Audiences want to know what it's like to be a judge. Stories about events we experienced and how we felt bring presentations to life and enable audiences to identify with judges and the judicial process.

Interact with the Audience

Civics 101 is a very dry subject. It is difficult to keep the attention of audience members who are sitting and listening to descriptions of concepts and processes. It's even more difficult to generate audience enthusiasm when doing so. Find ways to interact with the audience as a whole and with individual audience members. Of course, this is easier to do with a small audience in a small space than with a large audience.

How Does the Court System Affect Them?

Audience members know they do not have the power to administer the legal system. But they do know that the courts have the power to affect them and their lives. Audience members will understand and remember more of your presentation if you evoke images of court proceedings and how they would feel if they were parties to a court proceeding.

Ask Questions

Questions require people to think and analyze. Thinking and analyzing increases comprehension and recall far more than merely listening. Questions can be directed to individuals, or they can be rhetorical. "Has anyone ever gone to the courthouse and watched a court proceeding?" "Has anyone ever served on a jury?" "If you were a party to a lawsuit, how would you want to be treated?" "Would it matter to you if . . . ?"

Be Human

Most people have never met a judge, so they either imagine what judges are like or believe that judges are a lot like the judges who are portrayed on afternoon television shows.

Be Yourself

Let them know what you care about. Tell them why you became a judge and what you like about being a judge.

The Judicial System Is Not Perfect

Our judicial system is a human one. Its task is to deal with human lives, fortunes, and relationships. It is designed to account for human traits and limitations. It often does so extremely well. Sometimes it does not. The appellate system is designed to address and resolve parties' assertions that errors occurred.

Do Not Talk About Candidates, Political Issues, or Pending Cases

Do not endorse or oppose any candidate for public office, solicit campaign funds, or say anything that could affect the outcome or impair the fairness of any matter pending in any court.

Do Not Debate with Audience Members

I have consistently found audiences to be respectful and courteous. On rare occasions, however, an audience member may try to draw you into a debate. Don't go there. When the questioner is done, pause to give yourself a moment to think about how best to respond. When appropriate, ask a question to clarify and focus the audience member's comment. Ask yourself how it relates to the substance of your presentation. Then, when possible, bridge back to your message and the values upon which you have built it. For more guidance, download Countering the Critics and Countering the Critics II, both of which were published by the Least Understood Branch group of the American Bar Association Judicial Division and Standing Committee on Judicial Independence.


It is often said that America is an experiment in democracy. Our experiment has survived slavery, financial panics, civil war, the industrial revolution, mass immigrations, depression, war, and civil unrest. Now it must survive the information age and anonymous social media disinformation. America's founders and jurists throughout our history have created and developed an extraordinary judicial system that has served the highest ideals of justice and preserved the rule of law throughout these cultural challenges. The judicial system will continue to do so only as long as Americans understand that the judicial system is a foundation of civil order and a bulwark against tyranny, and only as long as they are confident that our courts are fair and impartial.

As judges, we are entrusted with the responsibility of administering and preserving the justice system. And as judges, we are uniquely able and responsible for ensuring that the public understands and is committed to preserving it. Access the many resources identified in this article and create a presentation of your own. Participate in National Judicial Outreach Week, Law Day, and Constitution Day. Look for other opportunities to reach out to the communities you serve. The information you provide will increase public understanding of the rule of law, and your expertise and integrity will inspire them to protect and defend it.

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    Judge Russell Carparelli (Ret.)

    Judge Russell Carparelli (Ret.) has been active as a proponent of judicial outreach for nearly 15 years. He is the cofounder of Our Courts Colorado, an ABA award-winning judicial outreach program, served as chair of the Judicial Outreach Network Committee of the ABA Judicial Division, and helped establish National Judicial Outreach Week.