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Judges and Judiciary,
Covid Columns

Oct. 2, 2020

Judicial outreach will emerge stronger after the pandemic

COVID-19 has not stopped judicial outreach programs. But it will change them. Judicial outreach will emerge stronger and better after the pandemic.

Stanley Mosk Courthouse

Richard L. Fruin Jr.

Judge, Los Angeles County Superior Court

Independent calendar

COVID-19 has not stopped judicial outreach programs. But it will change them. Judicial outreach will emerge stronger and better after the pandemic.

Judicial outreach includes organized efforts by the courts to educate the public about the work of judges. It is an official judicial function.

"Judicial participation in community outreach activities should be considered an official judicial function to promote public understanding of and confidence in the administration of justice." Jud. Administration, Standard 10.5.

Until now, outreach programs have been structured so that judges meet with live audiences, usually at a venue outside the courthouse. Traditional outreach programs are defined by their audiences. There are programs designed for school audiences; for adult audiences; and, more recently, for high school students including minorities to acquaint them with careers in the justice system.

The pandemic has changed that. Audience events are for now banned by the emergency orders, and easy communication even in small meetings is hampered by social distancing and masking rules. Audience communication is now carried on through the use of virtual platforms, and this likely will continue as a favored forum even after the pandemic runs its course.

Courts will need to learn to use virtual platforms for judicial outreach programs. However, there is an upside. Judges are effective presenters to live audiences about the work of the courts, but judicial time is limited. Judges are the scarcest resources required for successful for outreach programs. Appearing remotely will allow judges to reach more audiences, and, moreover, to do it from their chambers without leaving the courthouse.

This article will suggest benefits that judicial outreach programs may gain from presenting on virtual platforms, and will discuss two outreach programs that are succeeding in the new virtual world.

The two programs are Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye's Judges in the Classroom program and the Court-Clergy Conferences program, which has been featured with success by trial courts in our largest counties.

The chief justice, together with her Power of Democracy Steering Committee, launched the Judges in the Classroom in 2018. The program provides an online means for teachers to connect with judges to arrange for the judge to make a presentation in the teacher's classroom. The program provides online materials so that the judge and teacher jointly can teach a grade-level curriculum about the justice system. The materials include scenarios that the judge and teacher could turn into mock trials so that the students can better understand the judicial process.

The pandemic ended not only the judges' visits to classrooms, but in-school classes all together. However, judges in San Diego and Butte Counties, together with the participating teachers, have been piloting the Judges in the Classroom program with the students participating remotely from their homes with Zoom technology. The teachers who have made the transition have remained enthusiastic. A teacher in San Diego said:

"I believe the [video] meeting that the Judge and I had prior to the lesson was extremely valuable... Students were thoroughly engaged, particularly when they were placed in breakout rooms to discuss the different scenarios. The length of time, approximately 45 minutes, was perfect for a virtual presentation with fifth graders."

In San Diego there have been virtual presentations at 11 schools since May involving 581 participating students. Twelve judges have participated in the virtual program in the San Diego County Superior Court. San Diego has even created a virtual courthouse tour to introduce students to the judge's courtroom. A court clerk, operating a two-way camera in a Microsoft tablet, greets the teacher and students appearing through Zoom, escorts them inside the courthouse and into the judge's courtroom, where the judge and teacher present the lesson plan.

Judges in the Classroom offers to schools a judicial resource that complies with state education standards. A virtual format will provide great efficiencies by eliminating a judge's travel time to schools, and, thus, help judges to find time to make more classroom presentations.

The SDSC program manager is Julie Myres ( Penne Soltysik ( is the lead on the Civic Learning Initiative in the chief justice's chambers.

Virtual outreach programs to adult audiences present unique problems. Among them: how to create a remote audience for a judicial outreach program; how to structure a virtual program to allow interactivity between the separated remote participants and the judges; and how to obtain participant feedback so that the success of the virtual program can be evaluated.

Court Clergy Conferences are an adult judicial outreach program that has enjoyed great success. Conferences have been presented by trial judges in Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Clara, Sacramento and San Bernardino Counties. Often the clergy audiences exceed 100 participants. Judges at the conferences describe proceedings in criminal, juvenile, and family courts because clergy need accurate information about those courts for pastoral counseling. The format also lends itself to dialogue about matters having special interest to pastors including domestic violence, substance abuse, mandatory reporting (for child abuse), homelessness and even immigration. The topics raised at individual conferences are usually chosen in "focus groups" meetings of judges and clergy leaders held before a conference is scheduled. Handout materials including criminal justice flow charts are prepared which pastors can take with them as references.

Virtual platforms can be used to enhance and expand the Court Clergy programs. The topics that judges could present to a live audience have depended on the judges who could prepare and attend the actual event. The presentation using a virtual platform can be a mixture of speakers appearing virtually, virtual tours, video podcasts (say, of a jail facility), and downloadable reference materials. Moreover, if the conference is online, judges from different counties can present at the same conference. This would encourage courts in smaller counties to promote the virtual conference so their local pastors can attend in the remote audience. When COVID restrictions are lifted, Court Clergy Conferences could be presented as a hybrid, with some clergy attending in a live audience and others attending remotely. San Diego is now planning to present a hybrid Court Clergy Conference in the spring of 2021.

An online format provides an opportunity for state courts to present a broader agenda: for instance, an online program could include a presentation on immigration issues by a federal immigration judge. Pastors often request a discussion of immigration topics, but that has been a neglected topic because of difficulties in coordinating with federal immigration courts.

With an online conference it is important to have lively interaction; the participants should know that they are part of broader and engaged audience. Chat rooms could be arranged on particular topics. To encourage participation the courts could commit to having a specialized judge available in subject-matter chat rooms. A virtual platform would permit audiences interested in particular issues to assemble at different locations; this would enable courts to volunteer judges with appropriate experience to join the conference in some of those locations.

The greatest challenge in using a virtual platform to reach an adult audience is advertising the outreach program to build an audience that will tune in to the program. Such audiences, however, can be promoted through clergy networks. The internet, moreover, is an unparalleled communications tool. It can be used to send out invitations; to confirm attendance at the virtual program; and, most importantly, to publicize on the court's website the outreach program after the event to build anticipation for the next event.

Judicial outreach will succeed in a virtual future. The California Judges Association established a Judicial Outreach Committee two years ago. Judge Leonard Marquez of the Contra Costa County Superior Court chairs the Committee. 


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