Public engagement project reveals some distrust of the courts but a desire to learn more about them

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Public engagement project reveals some distrust of the courts but a desire to learn more about them

They met in diverse places – a high school in Kansas City, Native American reservations in Nebraska, a community center in western Massachusetts and a courthouse in the southern tip of Texas – but their goal was the same: Find out what disenfranchised people think of the courts in their communities.

Court officials recently spoke about those meetings during the second of a two-part webinar about community engagement, this one focusing on the Public Engagement Pilot Project, which seeks to engage the public and identify ways courts can best overcome social inequities and bias and build trust.

“Unlike previous outreach efforts – and there have been many – we think what makes this project unique is it focuses on members of the community who are users of the courts,” said webinar moderator Chief Judge of the D.C. Court of Appeals Anna Blackburne-Rigsby, who leads the public engagement project.

At the webinar, court officials from four of the six pilot project sites – the Supreme Court of Nebraska, Kansas City (Mo.) Municipal Division, Massachusetts Trial Court and the Texas Office of Court Administration – said some people who attended their meetings expressed distrust of the justice system, but many wanted to learn more about the role of the courts in their communities. Here’s a brief summary of what they said:

  • Nebraska court officials are focusing on the concerns and priorities of Native Americans and have met three times with members of the state’s six tribes. “They told us they want more legal representation, good lawyers to help them,” said Nebraska Chief Justice Michael Heavican. They also spoke about the role courts play in landlord-tenant and mental health issues, added Corey Steel, Nebraska’s state court administrator.
  • Texas conducted meetings in three very different cities -- Alpine, a rural city, Brownsville, which is mid-sized, and Houston, the state’s largest city – and conducted surveys. The people who came to the meeting in Alpine trusted the courts “some,” and wanted civics education taught in the schools. In Brownsville, where the Latino population is very high, residents were concerned about language access in the courts. In Houston, “there was a very low trust factor,” which is influenced by residents’ interactions with the police, said Jeffrey Tsunekawa, Texas’ director of research and court services.
  • Kansas City court officials formed a partnership with diverse groups, such as a human trafficking organization, a Baptist church and a Latino advocacy group, and conducted four meetings that attracted a total of 175 people. They also surveyed about 950 people at the courthouse during one week in May. Many people said they want additional opportunities to provide input to court officials as well as changes in the system that bring fairness to the poor and to minorities, said Benita Jones, the court’s public information officer.
  • In Massachusetts, the pilot project focused on race, and John Laing, the state’s chief experience and diversity officer, said the state partnered with neighborhood groups and gave local leaders a significant role. “The largest benefit,” Laing said, “was the relationships we formed by bringing everyone together.”

Court officials in all four places said continuing to engage the public while the pandemic rages on presents a huge challenge, but they are committed to the project. Go here to watch the webinar.

The Franklin County (Ohio) Municipal Court and the Puerto Rico Judicial Branch also are participating in the pilot project. You can go here to learn about what they are doing.

If you have any comments or questions, contact Tina Vagenas, NCSC’s director of Access to Justice Initiatives.

New leaders for CCJ, COSCA and NCSC

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht and Laurie Dudgeon, Kentucky’s state court administrator, are the newly elected presidents of the Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ) and the Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA).

At the same time, Chief Justice Hecht and Dudgeon became chair and vice chair, respectively, of NCSC’s Board of Directors. All positions are one-year terms, though Chief Justice Hecht completed the terms of Iowa Chief Justice Mark Cady, who died unexpectedly in November at which time Chief Justice Hecht was CCJ president-elect.

Chief Justice Hecht has earned a national reputation for his work advocating for increased legal aid for the poor and military veterans. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, he has led a national team of court leaders who are responding to the pandemic in a way that protects the public’s safety and maintains access to the justice system.

Dudgeon has served as director of the Administrative Office of the Kentucky Courts since 2009. She recently served as co-chair of the National Judicial Task Force on Court Fines, Fees and Bail Practices.