Judges, Take Control of the Courtroom

judges take controlThe 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:

EdCon Slide 4

EdCon Slide 6

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

EdCon Slide12

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.

 

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Jayne Reardon
As a prior trial lawyer, Jayne leads lawyers to embrace the transformative possibilities of future law practice. As a prior disciplinary counsel, Jayne is passionate about promoting the core values of the legal profession. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and the University of Notre Dame. Jayne lives in Park Ridge, Illinois with her husband and those of her four children who are not otherwise living in college towns and beyond.
Jayne Reardon

One thought on “Judges, Take Control of the Courtroom

  1. This is a very good article and I believe that the Judges are conducting themselves in a proper and professional manner.
    I have witnessed no problems with Judges.

    This may be on a tangent with the intended article but I must address one issue.

    The quote as read hereinabove: ……. “In response to other questions, 8.2% of the court users felt they were not treated with courtesy and respect by court staff”. ……. I do agree with this statement.

    Most court clerks initially have no background or knowledge of the legal field and receive those positions from “laterals” within the system after a few years of employment. Their training is on the job and in most cases rushed in order to cover the court calls due to the high volume of cases.

    Because their jobs are secure, their attitudes toward intake, clients and even legal counsel can at times be usually less than professional.

    I practice and work in the court system and have witnessed this environment first hand.
    What gripes me, is that approximately 5% or less of the employees have ever possessed a paralegal certificate, worked as a legal assistant or in the legal field.

    As a result, many case files are in deplorable shape with no formal structure or referenced timelines that are supposed to be placed in sequence.

    I have seen that some cases are misplaced; whereby, the Judge is forced to issue a continuance for the defendant/plaintiff because the clerks were unable to locate the case files.
    Those incidents are not the Judge’s fault but one of the court clerks and court staff who process the case flow, petitions of filings, seals of felonies, and civil related matters among their other duties.

    I believe that in order to become a court clerk; one should at a minimum, have a certificate from an accredited ABA paralegal school, college or university; or better yet, law degree with at least a Masters in Law studies.

    This way, they will have a more clear understanding of the courtroom; it’s protocols and procedures along with maintaining case files in the proper manner which I believe would make the courtroom more efficient.

    I have already written a treatise on this issue and presented it to the ABA for review. But I believe it will take much more than a treatise to change the way court staff does business within the court system.

    A good start to change this would be with the ABA and then the State’s Supreme Court for all Non-Federal Circuit Courts.

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