The D.C. Courts of Washington, D.C. held its Annual Judicial Conference Fri., June 19 at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center located in Northwest D.C. Eric Holder, Attorney General of the United States (center) was the guest speaker and received a warm welcome from attendees. He shared the dais with Chief Judge Eric Washington (left) and Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby and Chief Judge Lee Satterfield (far right). Photo by Victor Holt
Some 500 judges and others from the Washington legal community gathered at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Northwest for the D.C. Courts 34th Annual Judicial Conference on Fri., June 19.
The conference examined the mediaâ€™s impact on the publicâ€™s perception of the courts, judges, lawyers and the administration of justice. The conference also explored current and emerging issues confronting the courts regarding the use of new and developing technologies, as well as the practical implications for judges and lawyers created by these technologies.
The Honorable Eric H. Holder, Jr., Attorney General of the United States delivered the luncheon keynote address. Holder urged attendees â€œnot to view technology as a burden or something to fear but as a tool that can help advance the cause of justice,â€ specifically referencing technological advances in tracking convicted sex-offenders.
Holder then turned his attention to the Obama administrationâ€™s commitment to erasing the disparities created by federal sentencing guidelines and their â€œdisproportionate impactâ€ on minority drug offenders.
Touting the need for drug treatment and social reentry programs for inmates, Holder said â€œbalancing the scales of justice will be the true measure of the [Obama] administrationâ€™s success.â€
Participants of the conferenceâ€™s panel discussions included William R. (â€œBillyâ€) Martin, the high-powered D.C. attorney who represented Monica Lewinsky, and NFL quarterback Michael Vick. Also participating were Judge Judith Barton of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, who presided over the infamous â€œ$67 million lost pants case,â€ in which another D.C. judge brought suit against a dry cleaners; and Judge Reggie B., Walton of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia who presided over the trial of I. Lewis â€œScooterâ€ Libby, former Vice President Dick Cheneyâ€™s Chief of Staff, on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements.
Exploring the effect of the media on the publicâ€™s perceptions of the judicial process, panelists widely agreed that television shows such as â€œCSIâ€ and â€œLaw and Orderâ€ have had an appreciable impact on juriesâ€™ expectations regarding the presentation of evidence in criminal trials. Judge Barton is of the opinion that these shows also have heightened clientsâ€™ expectations of their lawyerâ€™s performance during trial.
Shows like â€œJudge Mathisâ€ and â€œJudge Judyâ€ are thought to compromise courtroom decorum because, in the interests of entertainment, they often deviate from the civility found in actual courtrooms.
Judge Walton perceives difficulty in maintaining fairness when competing cable outlets broadcast different perspectives based on their political allegiances. Jurors, therefore, â€œcome to court with preconceived ideas about a case,â€ he said.
Panelists were in consensus that the prevalence of legal analysts offering â€œexpertâ€ opinions on the various cable networks served only to exacerbate this problem.
With respect to emerging technologies, Martin said â€œthe use of cell phone cameras to capture photographs of witnesses and jurors for the purpose of intimidation is cause for concern.â€ In addition, immediate updates of proceedings from inside the courtroom via â€œTwitterâ€ are viewed as potentially problematic. There was general agreement that new and developing technologies will ultimately change the way law is currently practiced.
A Report of the Standing Committee of Pro Bono Legal Services released in conjunction with the Conference noted â€œthe last several years saw the implementation of the D.C. Access to Justice Commission, which was instrumental in securing the D.C. City Councilâ€™s allocation of $3.2 million in both fiscal years 2007 and 2008 to provide civil legal services for under served populations.â€
Despite these encouraging developments, it was pointed out that they should â€œbe viewed against the backdrop of increasing poverty and legal needâ€ as â€œpoverty in the District is at the highest level in nearly a decade with one in five residents living below the poverty line [as] 33 percent of the residents qualify as low-income.â€ The report reached a sobering conclusion: â€œthe unmet need for legal assistanceâ€¦is significant.