Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Judges in the Community: A Celebration of Law Day 2011
May 4, 2011

EDITOR’S NOTE: This speech appears as summarized for a guest editorial in the Daily Reporter May 4, 2011.

As we celebrate Law Day this year, I am reminded of the special obligation that we as judges have to be active participants in our communities.

Alexander Hamilton wrote famously in the Federalist No. 78 that the courts are by design the weakest branch of government.

“The judiciary ... has no influence over either the sword or the purse; no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society; and can take no active resolution whatever. It may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment,” he wrote.

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has referred to the judiciary’s power as the “Power of the Quill.”  She recently said: “The Judicial power lies in the force of reason and the willingness of others to listen to those reasons.”

So, we are called as judges to not just judge, but to support public understanding of the judicial system, to be open and accessible to the public, and to do everything in our power to uphold the integrity of the juridical system.

It has long been recognized that the courts are different, that our role as judges is different.

We have the unique challenge of being both independent and at the same time responsive to the will of the people.

It’s a paradox to be on the one hand separate and independent and on the other hand be responsive, engaged and accountable.

How do we be responsive and transparent to the public we serve while being independent of the majority will? How do we strike the balance between independence and accountability?

My message to you this Law Day is this: As judges, not only can we be engaged with the community without compromising our independence and impartiality, but we must do this.

In an increasingly interconnected world we as judges must engage with the public and find a way to do this that maintains our independence and impartiality.

In fact, the Code of Judicial Conduct states this requirement in more than one place.

In the comment section to Rule 3.1 it states: “Participation in both law-related and other extrajudicial activities helps integrate judges into their communities and furthers public understanding of and respect for courts and the judicial system.”

The comment to Rule 1.2 goes even further stating: “A judge should initiate and participate in activities for the purpose of promoting public understanding of and confidence in the administration of justice ...

“In conducting such activities, the judge must act in a manner consistent with this code.”

The rapid changes that continue to transform our media landscape have resulted in a new culture that makes it ever more important for us to fulfill this aspiration of the judicial code.

People today arrive at our courthouses with different expectations than those just 10 or even 5 years ago. The public now expects courts and judges to be responsive and engaged in the community, just like the rest of the world.

We are no longer served by the old model of the separate, distant – even aloof – judge dispensing justice from upon high.

As judges in the 21st Century, we are now called to a new form of service, one that requires that we regularly come out from behind the bench.

We must engage with the communities we serve.

Now, let me be clear. I am not on Facebook or Twitter, and I am not evangelizing that every judge run out and jump into social media.

Each judge has a unique style, temperament, personality, background and community. Each of us will find our own unique path, some of us going the old fashioned route of joining the local Rotary or other service club. Others venturing into high schools to help educate students about exactly what a judge does or guest columnists to the local newspaper. No matter what forum each performs a valuable service.

The point is to engage. But as judges we must do so with caution. As I said, it is a paradox of sorts. We are required to support understanding of the judicial branch, which requires us to be transparent, accessible and engaged. And at the same time we must not only be independent and impartial but we must appear independent and impartial.

While it’s true that judges have probably erred too much on the side of caution, concerned about the judicial canons, it is also true that those canons exist for a reason, and we must always be mindful of their requirements and prohibitions.

So, as we celebrate the Rule of Law I encourage judges to consider community involvement and service. And I call on all members of the bar to support our judges in these endeavors.

Lady Justice may be blind, but she need not be a hermit. Judges are and must be a part of their communities not apart from those communities.