Canon 1 of the Model Code of Judicial Conduct sets the tone for the provisions to come and provides the foundation of judicial ethics: “A judge shall uphold and promote the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary, and shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.” It is to this primary fundamental canon that the code, in its commentary, refers to “community outreach”: “A judge should initiate and participate in community outreach activities for the purpose of promoting public understanding of and confidence in the administration of justice. In conducting such activities, the judge must act in a manner consistent with this Code.”1
Formerly we thought of “judicial outreach” as speaking about the courts to local schools and rotary groups to foster a continuing good relationship. In our current times, judicial outreach has a much more urgent and compelling purpose. When public officials attack judicial decisions by attacking the judges, the public looks to the judiciary for response. Limited by ethics restrictions on commenting on pending court matters, judges can and should respond through “judicial outreach.”
Judicial outreach can be more than basic civics education. Judges are experts in various areas of substantive law and court administration issues. When communities have concerns about charged criminal defendants, judges can and should explain bail procedures and standards. Where sentences appear to be disparate, judges can talk about the difficult factors that they need to weigh while aware of any systemic biases. As many families are impacted by divorce, addiction issues, and protection of their children, judges can effectively speak to the court’s role in addressing all.
Frustration at the inability to directly address public inaccurate portrayals of court processes and decisions can be countered with active judicial outreach. This issue of The Judges’ Journal includes resources for a variety of approaches and audiences. Judicial outreach programs also provide opportunities for judges to partner with lawyers, teachers, and other community leaders. A judge isolated behind the bench transforms into a vital respected and visible community leader through outreach efforts.
Fears of engaging in judicial outreach are easily countered. Typically, judges are fearful of confrontations with unhappy litigants, facing improper questions, or politically entrenched audiences. By teaming with a lawyer who has more leeway in answering questions about political issues or issues pending before the courts, many of these obstacles can be overcome. Some ethical considerations to keep in mind include:
- avoid political organization venues;
- prepare a topic-based presentation;
- have resource lists to refer others to for questions you cannot answer; and
- explain clearly why judges cannot answer certain questions up front.
In short, judicial outreach is the most direct and tangible means for judges to uphold and promote the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary. Judicial outreach efforts provide the rare opportunity for judges to interact directly with the community, answering their questions and addressing their concerns. In a very real way, each judge becomes the face of justice through judicial outreach programs. With threats to judicial independence evident in daily headlines, judicial outreach becomes more than a mere suggestion. Judicial outreach is now an ethical imperative—one that each judge should take on as his or her own.
1. Model Code of Judicial Conduct r. 1.2 cmt. 6 (Am. Bar Ass’n 2011).