The most frequent comment we hear at the Commission about reversing the slide toward incivility in the legal profession: have the judges take control.
Someone told me just last week that associates in her firm try to resist meeting incivility with incivility but felt obliged to do so to not look weak or ineffectual in front of the judge. They reported that some judges seem to reward loud and aggressive behavior with rulings, so they felt they had to be loud and aggressive.
This type of feedback has been used as a basis for educational programming the Commission presents at the bi-annual Judicial Educational Conference.
Judges, like lawyers, must take 30 hours of continuing education every two years. The Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts coordinates Judicial “EdCon” for the nearly 1,000 judges to occur in the first week of February and the first week of April. The Chief Judges assign the judges in their circuits to attend one of the weeks in a way that ensures the work in the courthouses doesn’t grind to a halt.
Professionalism: Perspectives and Perceptions
Yesterday, Commission Chair Hon. Debra Walker and I presented a professionalism program at EdCon. The 2016 program is called “Professionalism: Perspectives and Perceptions”. The title is based on the fact that judges have certain perspectives on professionalism and users of the courts have their perceptions. The course includes the results of the 2015 Illinois Court User Survey and discusses concrete tools to improve the quality of judicial services and the perceptions of those services.
In the course, judges are given “turning point responders” to answer several of the questions in the way they think the court users in their courthouses would have responded. Their responses are displayed, then the responses of the actual survey are shown. Discussion ensues.
On a five point scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”, the questions ask about being treated with courtesy and respect by court staff and by the judge. Here’s what the court users reported:
In response to other questions, 8.2% of the court users felt they were not treated with courtesy and respect by court staff and 8.8% felt they were not treated with respect by the judge. About 72% of court users responded that court started on time and the same percentage said that the judge explained what they could expect in the courtroom. So it seems like nearly 30% of court users have the experience that the judge is late and doesn’t provide an explanation of what they should expect from their time in court. They may not be the same people, of course, but if they are, what perception does that 30% have of how efficient or respectful our justice system is?
Perceptions About Biases of Judges
Court users also spoke to their perceptions about the biases of judges: On the upside, 63% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that judges don’t let their personal feelings affect how they rule. However, 17% answered that they thought judges were biased in their decision-making.
As I wrote before, other research shows that, as compared to others, young people and African Americans have less faith in the unbiased nature of the justice system. In a Harvard public opinion poll last year, 49 % of 18 to 29 year olds and 69% of African Americans had little or no confidence that “the U.S. Justice system” fairly judged people without bias for race or ethnicity.
No one wants members of the public to feel judges are biased or that court personnel are disrespectful. EdCon brings together judges from different courts across the state, and during our presentation, they shared strategies for improving professionalism.
“Judging is not a team activity,” said Judge Debra Walker. “We sit alone at benches that often are elevated above all the other people in the courtroom. So during EdCon, it’s great to come together as colleagues and discuss strategies to better deal with the people who use our courts.”
On the floor at EdCon, it is clear that judges care deeply about their responsibilities to administer justice and enjoy learning from each other. It’s inspiring to be part of that process.