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May 29, 2013

Justice may be in the eye of the beholder, but can we talk about it?

Judge E. Savannah Little of the D.C. Office of Administrative Hearings said she once entered the waiting room of her courtroom and found a litigant “barking” at a staff person about an issue. When she told the man she would take care of the issue in court, the man’s eyes “jumped out.” She thought, “What about me when I stood there did not represent that I was a judge? Was it because my skin is black? Or because my hair is not straight? Or because I didn’t have on a robe?”

Research shows many factors affect the perceptions of court users and the public, and those perceptions are crucial to understanding, as well as having confidence in, the system of justice. Individuals are less likely to access a system they do not trust, and impressions of bias are hard to overcome. Conversations about court perceptions can help local court stakeholders understand the barriers to justice.

A new guide from the Judicial Division Lawyers Conference helps to facilitate such conversations. The “Perceptions of Justice Toolkit,” first suggested by Staff Attorney Christina Plum of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, is a guide for putting on events about how local justice is perceived. The toolkit first focuses on why an organization should consider hosting an event. According to the guide, “Facilitating meetings with various stakeholders may bring together people who have never met in person, and whose actions directly affect perceptions of justice in your court system.”

Based on the Lawyers Conference’s experiences with its own events from 2009 to 2011, the toolkit discusses the advantages of different formats — town halls, panels featuring experts, court personnel and court users, half-day or full-day discussion sessions and small-group conversations.

Suggested topics include procedural justice (the extent to which court users perceive the judicial procedure was fair); the user’s experience from beginning to end; the perceived effects of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, disability, age and sexual orientation on the administration of justice; and the local impact of public outreach (whether judges and lawyers participating in public education programs improves understanding of the legal system).

Among its resources, the guide cites the National Center for State Courts’ list of state reports on gender and racial fairness in the courts.

The anecdote at the beginning of this piece regarding one way justice was perceived was presented at an ABA Judicial Division Lawyers Conference program in Washington, D.C., in 2010. It was one of six “Perceptions of Justice” events around the country featuring members of the public sharing their experiences with the court system and allowing members of the judiciary and court personnel to hear the concerns of court users.

The presentations at these events were not limited to personal experiences, as was illustrated at the program in Dallas in 2009. Professor Pat Chew of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law presented research demonstrating that summary judgment rulings in federal race discrimination cases correlate highly with the race of the judge. Summary judgment for the defendant was more than twice as likely when the judge was white than when the judge was of a different race.