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Issue 2: Preserving Public Trust, Confidence, and Understanding

How should the judiciary promote public trust and confidence in the federal courts in a manner consistent with its role within the federal government?

Issue Description

The ability of courts to fulfill their mission and perform their functions is based on the public’s trust and confidence in the judiciary. In large part, the judiciary earns that trust and confidence by faithfully performing its duties; adhering to ethical standards; and effectively carrying out internal oversight, review, and governance responsibilities. These responsibilities include accountability for a failure to observe scrupulous adherence to ethical standards. The surest way to lose trust and confidence is failure to live up to established ethical standards and failure to hold judges and judiciary personnel accountable for misconduct. Transparency in efforts to ensure accountability for misconduct, where possible and appropriate, helps foster public trust and confidence.

Public perceptions of the judiciary are often colored by misunderstandings about the institutional role of the federal courts and the limitations of their jurisdiction, as well as attitudes toward federal court decisions on matters of public interest and debate. Changes in social media and communication will continue to play a key role in how the judiciary is portrayed to and viewed by members of the public. These changes provide the judicial branch an opportunity to communicate broadly with greater ease and at far less cost. However, they also present the challenge of ensuring that judiciary information is complete, accurate, and timely. This challenge is especially difficult because judges are constrained in their ability to participate in public discourse. This plan includes four strategies to enhance public trust and  confidence in, and understanding of, the judiciary:

Strategy 2.1

Assure high standards of conduct and integrity for judges and employees.

Background and Commentary. Judges and judiciary employees are guided by codes of conduct, internal policies, and robust accountability mechanisms within the judiciary that work together to uphold standards relating to conduct and the management of public resources. These mechanisms include disciplinary action, as well as formal complaint procedures for impacted employees to seek redress, such as dispute resolution processes, audits, program reviews of judiciary operations, internal control and information technology self-assessments, and workplace conduct oversight and response processes. The judiciary has adopted several measures, described in Issue 4 of this plan, to ensure an exemplary workplace in which all employees are treated with dignity and respect, and on a non-discriminatory basis.

Accountability mechanisms must address critical risks, keep pace with changes in regulations and business practices, and respond to public and government interest in detailed and accessible information about the judiciary. The regular review and update of policies, along with efforts to ensure that they are accessible to judges and employees, will help to improve judiciary compliance and controls. In addition, guidance relating to conduct that reflects current uses of social media and other technologies can help to avoid the inappropriate conveyance of sensitive information.

This strategy emphasizes up-to-date policies, timely education, and relevant guidance about ethics, integrity, and accountability. The strategy also relies upon the effective performance of critical integrated internal controls; governance of judiciary financial information; audit, investigation, and discipline functions; risk management practices; and self-assessment programs.

Goal 2.1a:   Enhance education and training for judges and judiciary employees on ethical conduct, integrity, accountability, and workplace conduct.

Goal 2.1b:   Ensure the integrity of funds, information, operations, and programs through strengthened internal controls and audit programs.

Strategy 2.2

Hold accountable judges and judiciary personnel who engage in misconduct, and be transparent, in furtherance of statutory and other requirements and consistent with confidentiality and privacy requirements, about accountability for misconduct.

Background and Commentary. The judiciary seeks to ensure accountability by openly receiving information about potential misconduct and following existing procedures to address misconduct. Credible allegations of misconduct will be examined, investigated, and subject to appropriate action in accordance with existing statutory, policy, and other procedures. Individuals who experience or witness possible misconduct should be able to seek redress or satisfy their obligation to take appropriate action by bringing these issues to the attention of an appropriate official without fear of retaliation or adverse consequences. The judiciary’s codes of conduct, Rules for Judicial Conduct and Judicial Disability Proceedings, and Model Employment Dispute Resolution Plan were updated in 2019 to reinforce these principles.

Transparency, to the extent permissible and possible, demonstrates the judiciary’s fidelity to accountability for misconduct. Law and policy related to confidentiality and the legitimate privacy interests of victims, witnesses, and others may limit what information can be made public. The judiciary strives to make public information about misconduct procedures and related actions, where permissible and appropriate.

Goal 2.2a:   Ensure avenues for seeking advice, obtaining assistance as to potential misconduct, obtaining redress, where appropriate, and filing a complaint are easily accessible.

Goal 2.2b:   Ensure timely action is taken on credible allegations of misconduct according to established procedures, and when the evidence supports it, ensure action is taken with regard to misconduct.

Goal 2.2c:   Ensure each circuit’s website prominently displays actions taken under the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act and Rules for Judicial Conduct and Judicial Disability Procedures, in accordance with the requirements of the Act and the Rules, and summaries of other records or reports of workplace conduct issues, where permissible and appropriate.

Goal 2.2d:   Consider conducting reviews of systemic issues, when appropriate.

Strategy 2.3

Improve the sharing and delivery of information about the judiciary generally.

Background and Commentary. Sources of news, analysis, and information about the federal judiciary continue to change, as do communication tools used by the public. These changes can present challenges to the accurate portrayal of the judiciary and the justice system. Enhanced communication between the judiciary and the media is one way to help increase the accuracy of stories about the justice system and public understanding of the courts. Since the media is a significant way in which the public learns about the judiciary, helping reporters understand court processes is one way to improve the public understanding of the justice system. Judges can undertake these efforts within the parameters of the Code of Conduct and while avoiding discussion of any specific cases.

It is now easier to communicate directly with the public, which can help to improve the public’s understanding of the federal judiciary’s role and functions. The judiciary must keep pace with ongoing changes in how people access news and information when formulating its own communications practices.

The federal judiciary also serves as a model to other countries for its excellence, judicial independence, and the delivery of equal justice under the law. The judiciary should continue to work with the executive branch when called on to communicate with representatives of other countries about the mission, core values, and work of the federal judiciary.

Goal 2.3a:   Develop a communications strategy that considers the impact of changes in journalism and electronic communications and the ability of federal judges and employees to communicate directly with the public.

Goal 2.3b:   Develop or increase communications and relationships between judges and journalists, consistent with the Code of Conduct and not specific to any case, to foster increased understanding of the judiciary.

Goal 2.3c:   Communicate with judges in other countries to share information about the federal judiciary in our system of justice and to support rule-of-law programs around the world.

Strategy 2.4

Encourage involvement in civics education activities by judges and judiciary employees.

Background and Commentary. The federal judiciary relies on public respect, understanding, and acceptance. The lack of civics knowledge can have an adverse effect on the branch. A civically informed public will also be better inoculated against attempts to undermine trust in the justice system. As noted by the Chief Justice of the United States in his 2019 Year End Report on the Federal Judiciary, “[t]he judiciary has an important role to play in civic education....” Reinforcing the perspective of the Chief Justice, at its March 2020 session, the Judicial Conference of the United States “affirmed that civics education is a core component of judicial service; endorsed regularly-held conferences to share and promote best practices of civics education; and encouraged circuits to coordinate and promote education programs.”

Public outreach and civics education efforts by judges and judiciary employees take place inside courthouses and in the community. These efforts could be facilitated through greater coordination and collaboration with civics education organizations. Resources to help judges and judiciary employees participate in educational outreach efforts are available from the Administrative Office, the Federal Judicial Center, and private court administration and judges’ associations.

Goal 2.4a:   Communicate and collaborate with organizations outside the judicial branch to improve the public’s understanding of the role and functions of the federal judiciary and its accountability and oversight mechanisms and external financial reporting.

Goal 2.4b:   Facilitate participation by judges and court employees in public outreach and civics education programs.

Goal 2.4c:   Support education about the defense function and the critical role it plays in ensuring fair trials and proceedings, as well as in maintaining public confidence in the justice system.