D.C. Courts Hold 34th Annual Judicial Conference

6/24/2009, 10:06 p.m.

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 media€s impact on the public€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 €not to view technology as a burden or something to fear but as a tool that can help advance the cause of justice,€ specifically referencing technological advances in tracking convicted sex-offenders.

Holder then turned his attention to the Obama administration€s commitment to erasing the disparities created by federal sentencing guidelines and their €disproportionate impact€ on minority drug offenders.

Touting the need for drug treatment and social reentry programs for inmates, Holder said €balancing the scales of justice will be the true measure of the [Obama] administration€s success.€

Participants of the conference€s panel discussions included William R. (€Billy€) 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 €$67 million lost pants case,€ 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 €Scooter€ Libby, former Vice President Dick Cheney€s Chief of Staff, on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements.

Exploring the effect of the media on the public€s perceptions of the judicial process, panelists widely agreed that television shows such as €CSI€ and €Law and Order€ have had an appreciable impact on juries€ expectations regarding the presentation of evidence in criminal trials. Judge Barton is of the opinion that these shows also have heightened clients€ expectations of their lawyer€s performance during trial.

Shows like €Judge Mathis€ and €Judge Judy€ 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, €come to court with preconceived ideas about a case,€ he said.

Panelists were in consensus that the prevalence of legal analysts offering €expert€ opinions on the various cable networks served only to exacerbate this problem.

With respect to emerging technologies, Martin said €the use of cell phone cameras to capture photographs of witnesses and jurors for the purpose of intimidation is cause for concern.€ In addition, immediate updates of proceedings from inside the courtroom via €Twitter€ 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 €the last several years saw the implementation of the D.C. Access to Justice Commission, which was instrumental in securing the D.C. City Council€s allocation of $3.2 million in both fiscal years 2007 and 2008 to provide civil legal services for under served populations.€

Despite these encouraging developments, it was pointed out that they should €be viewed against the backdrop of increasing poverty and legal need€ as €poverty 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.€ The report reached a sobering conclusion: €the unmet need for legal assistance€is significant.