Problem-solving courts have generated healthy debate among both proponents and critics. Advocates of problem-solving courts hail improved case outcomes, including reductions in crime, increased sobriety for addicts, safer neighborhoods, fewer probation violations, and enhanced public confidence in justice. Skeptics question whether the new courts are engaged in practices—including monitoring defendants in treatment, listening to community concerns, and forging collaborations with government and non-profit agencies to solve discrete problems—that are inconsistent with the traditional values of the judicial branch.
What is so new about what judges are doing in problem-solving courts? In late 1999, a select group of judges, attorneys, policy makers, and scholars gathered to answer this and other questions. The panel was the first in a series of discussions about problem-solving courts sponsored by the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, the Open Society Institute (Program in Law and Society), and the Center for Court Innovation. What follows is an edited transcript of this part of the conversation. For the entire transcript, click here.
Moderator Eric Lane, Eric J. Schmertz Professor of Public Law and Public Service, Hofstra Law School: What’s so new about what judges are doing in problem-solving courts?
Cindy Lederman, Administrative Judge, Juvenile Division, 11th Judicial Circuit, Florida: It seems to me that the public is now coming to the courts and asking for solutions to problems like crime, domestic violence, and substance abuse. If we as judges accept this challenge, we’re no longer the referee or the spectator. We’re a participant in the process. We’re not just looking at the offense any more. We’re looking more and more at the best interests, not just of the defendant, but of the defendant’s family and the community as well. This is quite a leap. It’s not traditional. And not every judge can or should do this. It can be a disaster to have the wrong judge sitting in a problem-solving court. It’s much more difficult than sitting in a normal courtroom. You need to read more than the law. You need a lot more courage as well, because you will be subject to tremendous criticism from your colleagues. “Are you being impartial? Do you know too much so that you can no longer be impartial?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that. Which leads me to one of my favorite quotes, which is “The judiciary is the only profession that exalts ignorance.”
Judith S. Kaye, Chief Judge, New York State Court of Appeals: I’ve never understood that. I’ve been an appellate judge for more than 16 years. I’ve decided a lot of Uniform Commercial Code cases. I love the Uniform Commercial Code. I read a lot about it. Am I doing something unethical? Is the domestic violence judge who tries to make himself an informed person on the very difficult issue of domestic violence doing something unethical?
Truman Morrison, III, Judge, District of Columbia Superior Court: I’m puzzled by some of the things that Judge Lederman said. I don’t understand why it is that only a few of her colleagues would be fit to be in one of these special courts. I hope that it isn’t because only a few of them share her ideological view of how you approach domestic violence or how you approach drug abuse, because if that’s true, I think that’s very, very worrisome.
Michael Schrunk, District Attorney, Multnomah County, Oregon: I agree wholeheartedly that not every judge can be a problem-solving court judge. My public defender and I have to go out and recruit judges, literally, with the blessing of our presiding judge, to see if they’d be willing to do a drug court, to do a community court. We get turned down by some of my former deputies, some of my public defender’s former deputies. What we’re looking for is a proactive judge as opposed to a reactive judge, someone who can preserve the core values of the judiciary, but still be a risktaker. I think there needs to be a recognition that this is non-traditional judging, just as I tell my young lawyers fresh out of law school who want to slug felons that this is non-traditional prosecuting. And I suspect deputy public defenders find out when they serve a tour in problem-solving courts that it’s non-traditional defending, too. We’re not preparing people in law schools for this.
Kaye: The suggestion is on the table that there is some sort of ideology that makes a good problem-solving judge. I thought it would be worthwhile hearing from one of the problem-solving judges.
Lederman: I think there’s an ideology. There’s a personality as well. There are many judges who are reluctant to speak human to human to the people that appear before them. Those judges are inappropriate for a problem-solving court. A judge has to feel that it’s the responsibility of the judiciary to engage in this sort of work and have the personality to engage human beings from the bench. Not every judge has these characteristics.
Morrison: I still don’t have a picture yet of who the ideal person for this job is. It strikes me that it ought to be a good judge—someone who is open to other people’s ideas, who listens, who is informed, who is impartial. All of us have colleagues who are brilliant and colleagues who are boors. Obviously, we don’t want bad judges in these courts. If we put aside the real bad people who probably shouldn’t be on the bench anyway, most judges could do this job, many more than do. By way of example, let me tell you about a colleague of mine on the bench. He’s actually the senior judge in our court, who everybody would define as a traditional judge, to the extent we all have a stereotype of that. Years ago, he served as the judge in our local drug court. Yesterday, he absolutely shocked me by saying that his year on the drug court was the single most meaningful experience he’s had in 22 years of being a judge. I said: “Gosh, that surprises me. Why is that?” He said: “Because in many ways I was able, with complete fidelity to all my principles, to do a better job of being a judge in that context than I ever was doing anything else.” I say this just to underline that if we’re doing this right, it shouldn’t be a tiny little fraternity and sorority of select jurists who are up to the task.
Judy Harris Kluger, Administrative Judge, New York City Criminal Court: I don’t think you need a particular ideology. That would be terrible. I do believe that, except for our problem judges, most judges could do this job well. In my experience, once the Midtown Community Court got started in New York, judges said: “Could I sit there?” These judges were very different, but the common denominator was they were tired of having their competence evaluated on how many arraignments they could do. You know, for a long time my claim to fame was that I arraigned 200 cases in one session. That’s ridiculous. When I was arraigning cases, I’d be handed the papers, say the sentence is going to be five days, ten days, whatever, never even looking at the defendant. At a community court, I’m able to look up from the papers and see the person standing in front of me. It takes two or three more minutes, but I think a judge is much more effective that way.