THE ROBED TWEETER: TWO JUDGES' VIEWS ON PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT.
|Dillard, Stephen Louis A.
For most of American history, the judge has been viewed as a different type of public servant. Unlike other public officials, judges are typically (and correctly) not considered politicians, and they are far less likely to interact with their constituents on a regular basis. Instead, they toil away in cloistered courthouses in relative anonymity, making decisions in civil and criminal matters of the utmost importance. But every so often, judges venture out into the real world to speak to the public about what they do. And while many of these public appearances are unquestionably motivated by a commitment to civic responsibility, elected judges feel a unique pressure to stay connected to the people they serve.
But there is a big difference between a judge speaking to lawyers at a CLE or community leaders at a chamber of commerce meeting, and a judge appearing at a campaign rally. Our sense is that the vast majority of elected judges intensely dislike campaigning. This is understandable. There is--at least at first blush--something unseemly about nonpartisan interpreters of the law campaigning in much the same way as candidates running for a legislative or executive office. The view that campaigning is antithetical to holding a judicial office is one iteration of a broader view that judges shouldn't be actively engaging the public except in limited circumstances. And unsurprisingly, judges are far less inclined to engage the public than other elected officials.
But it doesn't have to be this way, and it shouldn't be. Now, more than ever, citizens are interested in understanding and following the judiciary; and technology has given judges unique, cost-effective tools to engage and educate the public. We hope to make the case that judges should take advantage of these technological advances and drastically rethink the role of a judge in the modern age.
To put it plainly, we think judges are making a serious mistake by continuing to stay largely disengaged from the people they serve. Our sense is that many judges do so because they believe "being out there too much" is unbecoming of a judge. But why? Doesn't the nature of a judge's public activity matter? If a judge is educating the people he or she serves about the judiciary or frequently engaging them in a way that promotes confidence in the judicial branch, how is that inappropriate? (1)
In our view, it is long past time for judges to reimagine how they participate in their communities. They can (and we think should) engage and educate the people they serve on a regular basis. We judges need to shed our collective image as "stuffy, technologically challenged, and light on personality," (2) and step out of our courtrooms and into the light of day. We are public servants, not disengaged robed philosophers, and the public has a right to know who we are and what we do. (3) And in our view, one of the best ways for judges to effectively engage the people they serve is to embrace the ubiquitous social-media platforms other citizens use to communicate and interact with one another.
Some judges will surely disagree with us. Many judges are deeply uncomfortable with, and skeptical of, their colleagues using social media. We understand this apprehension and we will respond to it in this article. (4) We will start with a judge's role as digital citizen before making the case for judicial engagement through social media, answer the common objections, and end with our own ideas about best practices. In doing so, we hope to persuade some of our dissenting colleagues to embrace social media as a means of communicating with and engaging the public.
THE JUDGE AS A DIGITAL CITIZEN
The judiciary is, in many respects, "the least understood branch of government." (5) And yet, it is the branch most people directly interact with and are personally impacted by on a daily basis. For example, Michigan's district courts hear about three million cases each year, (6) as do Georgia's trial courts. (7) Needless to say, each of those cases has at least two parties directly impacted by the litigation, and many others who are affected by the case outcome because those parties have families and neighbors. Nowhere near that many people interact directly with the other branches of government. Nevertheless, there is a troubling disconnect between the judiciary and the people it serves.
Suffice it to say, law and legal process can be intimidating, and even frightening to many people. (8) Judges don't always make it less so; in fact, judges have "long been criticized for being inaccessible and a source of mystery to the public they serve." (9) The common view of the judiciary is that of "a wise but entirely detached body of individuals who sit on elevated benches, adorn themselves in majestic black robes (with gavels in hand), and dispassionately rule on the various and sundry disputes of the day (and do so largely out of the public eye)." (10)
We concede that this is a fair, broad-strokes assessment of the judiciary's relationship with the public; (11) but we know our branch can and must do better. Judges are public servants, and we have a duty to educate the public about the judiciary's unique role in our democracy, its decisionmaking processes, and what the public has a right to expect in our courthouses. (12) But to do this effectively, judges need to rethink how we (and our courts) engage with the public, get past our unease with technology, and fully embrace the social-media platforms those we serve use every day. (13) The public wants, indeed craves, this greater engagement by the judiciary. (14)
There are, of course, many ways for judges to interact with the public outside of the courtroom. And the traditional methods of engagement remain worthwhile; it is important for judges to be actively involved in their local communities by speaking to schools and community organizations, as well as attending events where they will have an opportunity to stay connected to the people they serve. Judges will also, naturally, spend a significant amount of time with law students and lawyers. This is all time well spent. Judges can and should be leaders in their local and legal communities.
But there are only so many events a judge can attend, only so many hands a judge can shake, and only so much time in the day. After all, a judge's job is already difficult and time consuming. So, how can a judge make his or her court widely accessible to the public and effectively communicate and build relationships with as many of his or her constituents as possible? Or, harder still: How can an appellate judge--a statewide public official--meaningfully engage with millions of constituents? This is where technology and social media can be a tremendous benefit. Indeed, the ability of a judge or court to use technology and social media to communicate with the public is revolutionary. (15)
But let's back up a bit: a judge's primary responsibility as a "digital citizen" begins with making sure that his or her court is as accessible as possible to the people it serves. (16) And this starts with a court's website providing "citizens with increased access to the judicial process...through...effortless access to court records," (17) implementing an "effective digital marketing strategy" to ensure that "people find a court's website when they need it," (18) and making the website easy to navigate. (19) A modern and easily accessible court website benefits judges and court staff, as well as the public, and informed litigants make legal processes more efficient and effective.
But one of the most important things a court can do to promote confidence in the judiciary is to open the virtual doors of the courthouse to the public by livestreaming trial proceedings and appellate oral arguments. Both of our courts do this, and also make the proceedings available for later viewing on YouTube and Vimeo channels. (20) The response from trial judges, lawyers, and the public has been overwhelmingly positive. To be sure, there are times when only twenty or thirty people are viewing one of our oral arguments; but the number of people watching our courts on any given day is not important. What matters is that Georgians no longer have to drive to Atlanta to see the judges and justices of the appellate courts in action, and Michiganders no longer have to drive to Lansing to see its high court at work. Instead, they can sit in the comfort of their homes, offices, or anywhere else, and watch our oral arguments, understand what issues their courts are considering, and determine for themselves whether the judges and justices honor them with their service.
Although user-friendly court websites and livestreaming judicial proceedings have fairly broad support from judges, there is less enthusiasm for more direct engagement with the public via social-media platforms. Even so, social-media platforms have dramatically altered the way public officials and political candidates engage with the public. Judges, unsurprisingly, have been slow to embrace this new technological frontier. (21) We hope to persuade our skeptical colleagues that the benefits of judges directly engaging the public on social-media platforms substantially outweigh the costs.
MAKING THE CASE FOR ENGAGEMENT
We have become two of the more outspoken advocates for judges engaging those they serve on social-media platforms. Our primary reasons are transparency and public education. Judges owe the citizens they serve information about
the role of the judiciary in our tripartite system of government (as well as the separation of powers), our system of appointing and electing judges, the training judges receive, the structure and operation of our judicial system, the judicial decision-making process, and what rights "we the people" have in relation to the judicial system. (22) The judiciary plays a critical role in the daily lives of the people of our states, and we believe they...
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