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Several states use courtroom videotapingto assess judges' courtroom demeanor
The National Law Journal
February 6, 2006
If golfers and football players use videotapes to improve their game,why not judges?That's the philosophy behind a pilot program in Massachusetts in whichseveral judges were recently videotaped so they could see exactly howthey act behind the bench.While cameras have long been in the courtroom documenting trialproceedings, this program is different in that the cameras zoom in onthe judges, looking for blunders or improper behavior."This doesn't mean that judges are not performing well; it just means thatwe need to continue to perform well and, when necessary, perform better,"said Charles R. Johnson, chief justice of the Boston Municipal CourtDepartment, who is reviewing 30 videotapes of judges to see wherepotential weak spots are."I'm sure that the majority of the tapes will reveal that the judges aredoing exactly what they should be doing. But it may very well revealthat there are judges who could improve their courtroom demeanor,"said Johnson, stressing that the program is not punitive but a preventativemeasure to weed out potential misimpressions."You can see mistakes and say, 'Oh my God, did I do that?' or 'Did I saythat?' But unless you have the opportunity to look back and observe yourperformance, you might miss your mistakes because a lot of people don'tpoint out our mistakes. They are reluctant to point it out, and to a largeextent we operate in isolation," Johnson said.
OTHER TAPING STATESAccording to the National Center for State Courts, just two other stateshave similar programs. Minnesota has videotaped judges since 2000, whileNew Jersey has been taping for a decade. In recent years, Oregonexperimented with the idea. And some courts in California reviewvideotaped court proceedings, but only if there's a complaint against ajudge.Judge Geoffrey Neithercut of Michigan's 7th Judicial Circuit Court inFlint, whose courtroom has been videotaped over the last decade, seesvideotapes as a useful tool that can help keep judges and lawyers in line.While the 7th Circuit initially implemented cameras to save money on courtreporters, Neithercut noted that the program has helped judges nix badhabits.Specifically, he recalled a judge who was famous for using body languageto try to influence the jury, but modified his behavior after being caughton tape doing so."He would sigh. He would roll his eyes. He would instruct the jury andsay, 'Now the law says we presume the defendant to be innocent,' and hiseyes would go to the back of his head," Neithercut said. "With the videoyou could catch him in the act."Neithercut applauded the Massachusetts program, saying, "I think it's agreat idea." As for his own behavior in the courtroom, he said, "I'd liketo say I try to do the right work with or without the [video] system."Attorney Cynthia Gray, director of the Center for Judicial Ethics for theAmerican Judicature Society, said videotapes could be a useful tool forjudiciary review committees that have to investigate cases of judicialmisconduct. She noted that misconduct cases saw a 29 percent increasein the last year, from 114 in 2004 to 147 cases in 2005."I don't know if it would get rid of misconduct or not. But I always thinkit's good for judges to look at themselves and for commissions to havegood evidence to exonerate judges or help prove misconduct," Gray said.In New Jersey, court officials note that videotapes help give judges thekind of feedback that lawyers or jurors are afraid to give."When we started doing evaluations with questionnaires, no one wantedto tell the judge what they honestly thought, and the videotapes are prettygood at giving them some clear-cut feedback," said Richard Young, chiefof the judicial education and performance unit for the New JerseyAdministrative Office of the Courts.David Givens, an anthropologist who researched and videotaped judicialbehavior for the Washington state judiciary for seven years, saidvideotapes can show potential bias in a judge.For example, he said, if judges compress their lips when a defendant istalking, it sends a signal that they don't believe the defense. Or when theypay attention to the prosecutor, but scribble notes when the defense lawyerspeaks, that implies they favor the prosecution.______________________________________________________Our thanks to Attorney Gary Zerman, gzerman@...,for bringing this to our attention.J.A.I.L.- Judicial Accountability Initiative Law - www.jail4judges.org
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