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Judges must increase confidence of public

Lack of trust can undermine courts' foundations.

By Shira Goodman

and Lynn A. Marks

There is a troubling disconnect between the courts and the public. The recent media reports about rules governing judicial ethics, policies on gifts to judges, and benefits such as car leases for appellate judges demonstrate this clearly. Both judges and members of the public are frustrated that those on the other side of the bench don't seem to understand the key points. As this disconnect persists, collaboration between those who use the courts and those who work in the courts becomes more elusive.

It is often said that people don't really understand what judges and courts do and the special role they play. Judges, court personnel, lawyers, and bar associations have an obligation to fill this information gap.

Some important steps are occurring in Pennsylvania, including the state Supreme Court's improved user-friendly website, judges teaching at schools and hosting students in court, the televising of some appellate court arguments, and meet-the-judges programs. It is also helpful when judges talk to juries after trials about their experience and about the justice system in general.

Helping people understand how courts operate and what judges do in turn fosters an appreciation for the ways judges are different from other public officials. When people have the opportunity to watch judges at work and hear them talk about their jobs, they come to understand why the courts are so central to our system of government.

This all helps demystify a group of officials who are somewhat isolated and constrained by ethical rules. Judges can't socialize and participate in activities the way they did before they took the bench.

It is important that people know that being a judge requires sacrifices.

Judges give up certain rights when they take the bench: to freely speak and write on many issues and to participate in much political activity. They may also give up lucrative private practices.

Often, the public does not recognize such sacrifices and instead views the bench as a "cushy" job. This leads judges to complain that the public "just doesn't understand."

Another troubling side effect of this isolation is that judges lose an important touchstone with public perception. Some judges have difficulty understanding why the public is concerned about judicial campaign fund-raising, for example. Judges may honestly state that a campaign contribution won't affect how they rule and don't understand why that assurance is not sufficient to quell fears of potential bias.

Similarly, judges may honestly state that a casual dinner or round of golf paid for by a lawyer who regularly appears in court will have no effect on judicial decision-making and can't comprehend why the public would argue that such gifts should be prohibited. These are the kinds of things that lead the public to moan that judges "don't get it."

Clearly, there is a disconnect. Perhaps the public perception and the judicial reality are very different. Even if the public's concern about judicial bias is over-blown, judges know that the true power of the courts is rooted in the public's perception and public confidence in fair and impartial justice. When that confidence is undermined - whether for good reason or not - the foundation of our justice system is shaken. Judges cannot allow that to happen. They should take responsibility for understanding public perception and working to maintain and increase public confidence.

This does impose additional obligations on judges, who already have demanding jobs. But it is a critical part of the judicial function.

Judges must find ways to stay grounded, to understand how court policies and judicial actions are viewed by the public. This requires a judge to think about what people see when they look at the courts. Maybe a good test would be for the judge to imagine what a juror - who gets $9 a day for serving and who may be struggling to find child care - would think.

Judges need to be aware of public perception. This is NOT to guide them in how to decide cases - which must be done independently and without regard to what is popular or politically expedient. Rather, judges must be aware of how the courts' operations and judicial conduct are perceived by the public. It is not sufficient to bemoan the lack of public understanding. Judges must work to understand what the public believes and why. Even if those beliefs seem unreasonable, judges must understand that they have a tremendous impact on whether or not the public has faith in its courts.