The DRI Judicial Task Force Report: An Opportunity For Corporate Counsel To Learn About Issues Facing The Judiciary

Thursday, November 1, 2007 - 01:00

Introduction

In June of 2005, the leadership of DRI-The Voice of the Defense Bar formed a task force to investigate issues facing the judiciary across America. The general mission of the DRI Judicial Task Force was to conduct in-depth research; to poll and interview a wide array of legal, business, community and political leaders; to report to DRI on the state of our judiciary, and to make recommendations for how DRI and state and local defense organizations could become involved in judicial issues.

The task force quickly learned that a great deal of research and polling had already been done by others.Furthermore, the most readily identifiable areas of concern for the judiciary were 1) adequacy of judicial salaries, 2) adequacy of court funding, 3) court security, 4) unjust criticism of judicial opinions, and 5) judicial selection. These five topics then became the focus of the work of the task force.

The seriousness of the issues facing the judiciary came as a surprise to the entire task force. All of us had some awareness of the challenges judges have faced in obtaining adequate pay and pay increases. Several task force members also came from jurisdictions with moderate to severe court funding problems. We were not prepared, however, to learn from poll after poll that the public's perception of judges has plunged to all time lows. Nearly a majority of people believe that judges rule according to their personal views or according to the influence of political or special interest groups and not according to the rule of law.Further, fewer voters are taking the time to vote for judges, and when they do vote, they don't know the candidates for whom they have voted. Of equal importance, we also learned that most lawyers are unaware of the problem.

The Causes Of Declining Public Confidence In Judges

Much has been written about the causes for declining public confidence in judges, and there will never be anything resembling agreement on this issue. Among the most-cited reasons were the rise of popularity for agenda-based or biased reporting of news on cable television, talk radio, and the Internet; the growing availability of cable television and the Internet to special interest groups; media sensationalism of judicial opinions; the perceived growing tendency by elected officials from other branches of government to criticize judges; the "spillover" effect of the public's general disenchantment with government; the perceived decline in the teaching of the role of judges in high schools; the increasing level of attack advertising in some statewide and local judicial elections, and the general inability of judges to defend themselves due to the ethical constraints of their occupation.

What Can Lawyers Do To Address The Issues Facing Judges?

There is no "one size fits all" solution to the issues facing judges, and all efforts to address issues are going to be very long term. The problems faced by judges have arisen over many years, and the political and social underpinnings of the problems are deeply engrained. More importantly, the issues facing judges vary so significantly from place to place that they can only be addressed locally.

What we know for certain is that if we do nothing, the public's declining confidence in the judiciary will continue to a point that our system will be threatened.Moreover, we lawyers and our clients are the day-to-day consumers of the judicial system, and if we don't do something, no one will.

The most pressing thing that we can do is educate. All lawyers need to learn about the issues so that they can, in turn, educate their clients and others. The subject of the judiciary should become a topic on meeting agendas and in publications. Ultimately, lawyers must also create or join coalitions of legal, civic, business and political groups to have dialogue about the growing threat to our judiciary.We also need to reach out to our schools and to other public organizations to offer speakers on the topic of the judiciary.

In Closing ... Put A Toe In The Water

There is a great deal of skepticism about the ability of anyone to reverse the course of affairs as they exist today. However, everyone can put a toe in the water and begin the process. We can certainly start by supporting adequate salaries and funding. We can participate on a local level in creating written materials, newspaper articles, websites and forums for the public to obtain information about the education, background and experience of judicial candidates. We can also host and promote symposia for information and debate about our judiciary.All of these activities are relatively easy to do, and if we do some or all of them, then there is hope for the future.

The DRI Judicial Task Force invites you to read our report on the DRI website at www.dri.org.

John Trimble is a Partner in the Indianapolis law firm of Lewis Wagner, LLP. He is a recent past board member of DRI, and the chair of the DRI Judicial Task Force.

John Trimble can be reached at jtrimble@lewiswagner.com.