Court Community Communication

What This Core Competency Is and Why It Is Important

People do not trust what they do not understand.  The Trial Court Performance Standards recognize Public Trust and Confidence as a critical area of court performance, equal in importance and related to Access to Justice; Expedition and Timeliness; Fairness, Equality, and Integrity; and Independence and Accountability.  Accountability and Independence Standards require trial courts “ … to inform and educate the public.”  Here we go further.  This Guideline challenges court leaders to educate, inform, and teach the public about the courts, but also to be educated, informed, and taught by the community.

In his seminal 1906 speech to the American Bar Association, published in the first issue of Judicature in 1913, Roscoe Pound made a timeless observation in his first sentence: “Dissatisfaction with the administration of justice is as old as law.”  Survey results from more than 35 states over the past quarter century confirm Pound’s insight.  Most public surveys indicate that the public generally neither understands nor is satisfied with court performance.

The fact that the court cannot always be on the side of public opinion energizes effective court leaders.  They work toward understandable courts and deserved public trust and confidence precisely because there is no guarantee that public perceptions will reflect even truly excellent court performance.

Court leadership is as critical here as it is with respect to caseflow management.  Court Community Communication requires balance between maintaining judicial impartiality and independence and the adversarial process and ensuring that the court and its leaders communicate with and learn from diverse publics.  Distance and reserve is critical to the judicial process, but it need not lead to judicial reserve or institutional isolation. Isolation is harmful to effective interaction with and understanding of the community and response to legitimate public questions, concerns, and insights about courts and court performance.  With effective leadership, the local legal culture can advance rather than retard both the pace of litigation and court community communication.

Print and broadcast news are consistently the greatest sources of information about our courts and probably the most influential forces in formulating public understanding of and satisfaction with the courts.  More Americans believe that cases are handled in a “poor manner” than in an “excellent manner.”

Findings from more than 30 years of surveys indicate that the public thinks that cases are not decided in a timely fashion and that resolving a matter through the courts is too expensive.  But the challenges go deeper.  The prestigious 1999 National Center for State Courts survey (How the Public Views the State Courts: Findings from a 1999 Survey) also revealed that both Hispanics and African Americans feel that they are routinely treated “worse” in court than Caucasians.  Significantly, Caucasians and Hispanics perceived that African Americans are not treated as well as others who come to court.  While the public’s view of judges is more positive than their view of courts generally, almost half of those polled in 1999 agreed that courts are “out- of-touch with what’s going on in their communities.”  An overwhelming majority of those polled agree that, “Politics influence court decisions.”

Competent court leaders understand that now as in Pound’s day, there are perpetual causes of popular dissatisfaction with the administration of justice.  In Pound’s words, some causes are inherent to “any system of law” -- the application of general principles to particular cases -- and others are due to our “peculiar” Anglo-American system of law.

As effective court leaders educate themselves about the public’s current understanding of and satisfaction with the courts, and work to remedy poor court performance and unfounded public perceptions, they understand that some popular dissatisfaction is inevitable.  They work hard to remedy performance issues and unfounded public opinions knowing that courts neither can nor should be expected to always be popular.

Effective court leaders avoid and keep others from falling into the trap of believing that “they” cannot and never will understand “us.”  They communicate well with and through the media.  Court community communication often goes through a reporter and the media as a filter and translator, but court leaders also must communicate without reporters from the print and broadcast media.  Alternative methods include understandable courts, community outreach, public information, community education programs, and the Internet.  Efforts to educate are always balanced and informed by community outreach.

Court executive leadership teams assisted at the state level and in some urban courts by professional public information officers (PIOs) can increase public understanding and ameliorate unduly negative public perceptions.  But the basics are the same in courts with PIOs and the vast majority of jurisdictions without them.  Communication is grounded in the purposes and responsibilities of courts.  Positive, well-conceived, and accurate public information and media relations are bolstered by work toward understandable courts and community outreach.  Whatever the size of the jurisdiction, court community communication is a court leader responsibility.

View the Summary of Court Community Communication Curriculum Guidelines or click on each of the six Curriculum Guidelines to see the associated Knowledge, Skills and Abilities:

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