“I think the first duty of society is justice.”
— Alexander Hamilton
“Peace and justice are two sides of the same coin.”
— Dwight Eisenhower
Each year the National Center for State Courts, located in Williamsburg, Va., conducts a survey of public perceptions about state court systems. The 2017 survey was conducted in October and November and results were released this week.
The NCSC is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the administration of the nation’s court systems. It was founded in 1971 following a joint call from then U.S. Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger and President Richard Nixon. It conducts research, hosts a substantial judicial library, puts on educational courses, and advocates for improvements in the legal system.
While the report contains some good news and some bad for America’s state courts, the overall news is positive. An overwhelming majority (74 percent) say that they have confidence in our state level court systems. And confidence in, and support for, the judiciary far outstrips that for the legislative and executive branches of government. Confidence in the judiciary remained at the same level as last year, and seven points higher than when the poll was first taken in 2012. But confidence in the legislative branch of government was at the lowest point ever for this particular poll.
The political divisions that lead to low ratings for legislatures are evident in responses about political influence over the court system. Just half of respondents said that judges were free to make decisions based on their reading and understanding of the law. A touch under half (47 percent) said that judges were subject to too much political pressure that undermined their ability to do their jobs fairly. And slightly more than half said that personal connections or political influence played too big a role in choosing state level judges- even in states where the judiciary is elected.
Overall attitudes about the work of state courts are positive. Sixty-eight percent of respondents say courts are “committed to protecting individual and civil rights.” Sixty-four percent say their local courts are “hard working.” Fifty-eight perfect say they are “fair and impartial” and fifty-four percent say they provide “equal justice to all.” Slightly smaller majorities say that state courts provide “good customer service” and are “a good investment of taxpayer dollars.” But just 42 percent say the court system is “innovative” (although that number is three points higher than a year ago).
On the negative side, judges are seen as being out of touch with the litigants who come into their courtroom. Sixty percent of respondents said that judges did not “understand the challenges facing people” who come into their courtrooms. That number jumped to 78 percent among African-Americans who were polled. Americans also recognized that providing justice to those in rural areas is a unique challenge, with 73 percent identifying it as a major problem.
Fortunately, those polled also had numerous suggestions on how their state court systems could provide better customer service to litigants who come into court. Close to, or more than 80 percent recommended plan language forms, the ability to get answers by phone or online, the ability to file forms or pay costs online, easy to navigate websites, and resource desks or self-help kiosks in courthouses. I’m pleased to say that several of our local court divisions have already implemented the first four of those five suggestions.
These aren’t just random numbers that will be immediately forgotten. The NCSC is the major national researcher in these areas and reaches more courts nationwide than any other organization. Courts across the country pore over this research data and use it to help make decisions about how to better bring about justice efficiently.