In the Spotlight

News & Features
Judges judged on behavior
By Elizabeth Stawicki, Minnesota Public Radio
August 28, 2001

Typically in courtrooms, it's the judges who do the observing, the evaluating of other people's behavior. But in Hennepin County, judges are subjecting themselves to scrutiny. The judges have asked independent observers to critique their courtroom conduct in hopes of improving the fairness of the justice system.

IMAGINE YOU'RE IN FAMILY COURT, HASHING OUT A CHILD CUSTODY MATTER. You expect the judge to take your case seriously. But the judge appears to looks past you, spends an inordinate amount of time pouring and mixing coffee, and puts his feet up on the desk.

St.Cloud Communications Professor Rin Porter says this type of demeanor by judges suggests, 'I don't care about your case; I've got more interesting things to do.'

"A couple of the judges I've spoken to about rocking in their chairs and putting their hands behind their heads...they insist to me that this is just fine and that they have good intentions and they really are listening," Porter said. "I've laughed with them and tried to explain to them that it doesn't matter what they intend, it's what people see."

Hennepin county hired Porter to analyze the judges' body language. Porter's study is based on a growing body research that finds the demeanor of judges has a direct impact on justice. Barnard College psychology department chairman Larry Heurer says people who believe their judge heard and respected them throughout the process are more likely to abide by the judge's final instructions, even if they disagree with the final outcome.

"It's never research focusing on a single individual it's always focusing on a lot of individuals across a lot of different conflicts involving a lot of different outcomes and different kinds of treatment," Heurer said. "The general finding is despite all that variability, the one that holds up as the predictor of their satisfaction is they were treated fairly."

Encouraging people to comply with judges' orders, such as child visitation rules for example, means fewer cases will return to court. That's according to Hennepin county Chief Judge Kevin Burke. Burke and other members of the court have taken the latest social science research to heart. Burke says paying $6,500 to educate judges about how their courtroom behavior influences whether the parties come back to court is an investment he thinks will pay off long term.

"The legislative auditor came out and said we have the highest case-load in the country and at the end of the legislative session, they gave us lots of money and we still have the highest caseload in the country because our bench got no new judges. If we could get a 10 percent better compliance with our orders based upon what happened in the courtroom we would have a quantum decrease in our caseload," Burke said.

But adjusting a judge's body language and demeanor may be a dicey proposition. A judge who wears a blank expression may be doing so to appear neutral. Judges have long prided themselves on appearing unshaken by some of the most disturbing testimony so as not to telegraph how they'll rule. "It's a real balancing act to place a neutral but pleasant look on your face, but that's something you can learn to do, said St. Cloud State communications professor Rin Porter.

Barnard psychology professor Larry Heurer says there's another risk: "There's a risk that decision-makers or authorities read all of this to say that I don't have to worry about substantive justice. What I have to do is tailor my presentation so that the recipients of my decisions view my treatment of them as fair."

Some of Professor Porter's suggestions to judges include: making eye contact and turning their bodies towards the people they're talking to. She also suggests that judges who have distracting habits place a small sign that only they can see to remind them to stop.