ANNAPOLIS – Maryland judges may soon be taking their act on the road, through a newly created judicial speakers bureau aimed at demystifying the courts and changing the public’s perception of the judiciary.
“We’re trying to make sure the public understands what we do and why we do it,” said Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert Bell of the speakers bureau.
The Maryland Judicial Conference, made up of judges across the state, on April 21 launched the bureau, which will let community groups hear directly from judges and other court officials.
“It’s a good idea for enhancing the respect of courts,” said David Bogan, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Maryland School of Law.
Bogan said the bureau will benefit the public, most of whom only know judges from what they see on television or from their personal experiences in the courtroom. And it will benefit judges, who usually only speak to lawyers and litigants, by helping to bring them into the community.
“Judges tend to be very remote figures,” Bogan said. “Judges generally always were willing to speak. There just wasn’t a mechanism to allow them to speak.”
Under the judicial conference plan, civic groups, social organizations, schools and others can request a judge as a speaker. A homeowners association could ask a judge to speak about landlord-tenant issues, for example.
Judges can volunteer to speak or may be asked, because of their location or their area of expertise, to speak about anything from traffic court to how they come to a decision.
They are bound by judicial ethics from talking about certain matters, such as current cases, and they cannot appear before groups with political, commercial or fund-raising purposes.
Bell said he does not think the bureau will have any problems with judges speaking out of line.
“I’m very confident that our judges are very clear of where their priorities are,” he said.
While the speakers bureau could conceivably give a leg up to judges who are standing for election, Bogan said he doubted that that was the motivation behind it.
The Maryland State Bar Association has had a similar program for about 15 years and several judges have participated, said Janet Eveleth, director of communications for the association.
She said the bar association’s program also helps “demystify” the public’s image of the complicated processes of the judicial system.
“It’s a great public education tool,” she said. “The attorneys that do it really enjoy it.”
Eveleth said lawyers, who are chosen according to subject matter, have spoken to everyone from senior citizens to community groups.
Maryland is not the first state to launch a judicial speakers bureau.
Wisconsin has offered judges as speakers since 1993 and it has been a very popular program, said Amanda Todd, Wisconsin Supreme Court information officer.
“I think that it’s a terrific way to educate the public about issues of law that affect their lives,” Todd said.
She said the people really appreciate the judges talking to them. The bureau handles about two speeches per week and about half of the judges participate.
Los Angeles County has had a bureau for four years, said Superior Court public information officer Jerrianne Hayslett, who called their program great.
Hayslett said it gives the judges a way to be better in touch with the community. Some judges even call looking for speaking opportunities if they have not been contacted in a while, she said.
Bell said he hopes the Maryland bureau can help improve the public’s view of the judiciary. “I don’t think it’s as good as it ought to be,” he said.
There have not been any requests for speakers yet, but Bell said he sees the program eventually expanding.
“We’re hoping that we are going to get a lot of requests,” he said.