by Judge Stephen Halsey
As a judge I really enjoy public outreach: speaking to citizens’ groups and school children; hosting a cable television show; and recording commentary on a local AM radio station. Recently, I submitted article No. 100 (since November 2006) to newspapers in the 8 counties of the Tenth Judicial District. But why would a judge write a column for a newspaper? Isn’t that simply asking for criticism? A senior judge once suggested “you should keep your head down,” like being in a foxhole on the front line.
Ninth Judicial District Judge Paul Rasmussen once answered these questions as follows:
•First, the public has a right to know who their judges are. Judicial elections have been receiving more attention in recent years and there has been considerable discussion about our method of selecting judges. Perhaps the most common complaint about judicial elections is that voters do not have enough information about the candidates to make an informed decision on who to vote for. Writing a column is one way information can get out.
•Second, judges have more freedom to speak publicly. Judges have rules we must follow that limit what we can talk about. Those rules have changed in recent years. While judges still cannot and should not make promises about how they would rule in a particular type of case, we have more freedom to speak than we did a few years ago.
•Third, our court system can be confusing and intimidating. Going to court can be a nerve-racking experience. We have lots of rules and speak a different language at times. Going to court might be less frightening if you have a better idea of how the court system works.
•Finally, our court system is changing. We are converting to a new court information system that will give the public access over the Internet to case files; we are setting up drug and DWI courts in an effort to more effectively deal with chemically dependant offenders; we are trying new ways of resolving divorces and custody disputes that we think will help couples avoid costly, emotionally draining court fights; and we are making efforts to reform our child protection system. In addition, every year the legislature passes hundreds of new laws.
It is sometimes said that any publicity is good publicity. I don’t think that applies to judges. Generally a media story about a judge’s decision is critical and not “fair and balanced” to quote a oft-used media phrase. I agree with Judge Rasmussen’s comments above. The public has a right to know what is happening in their courts and to have basic information available about court procedures and the laws applicable to disputes which bring many members of the public into court. So we judges have an obligation to participate in public outreach even though we are ethically prohibited from commenting on pending cases. It may be risky to “stick one’s neck out,” but it is a part of the public service duty of a judge.
As always, it’s in your court.
Wright County District Court Judge Stephen Halsey authored this article, with quotes from Ninth Judicial District Court Judge Paul Rasmussen, chambered in Clearwater County. Judge Halsey’s commentary may be heard on KRWC 1360 AM in the Buffalo area.