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Latinos and whites don’t share blacks’ skeptical views of the nation’s courts, according to a national survey. Nearly half of polled Latinos and whites who have had contact with the court system believe it is “usually or always” fair while only 15 percent of blacks with similar exposure think so. The findings are from a survey by the National Center for State Courts. The survey was presented this week at a conference in Atlanta of the National Association of Court Management. Among the survey’s findings: There is a strong perception that courts treat people of low income worse than other groups. � People who have been to court as litigants are very reluctant to return to court to resolve a similar dispute. � Courts are far less fair according to former litigants than according to former jurors and witnesses. The telephone survey, funded in part by a grant from the State Justice Institute, polled 1,600 white, black and Latino Americans earlier this year about courts in their communities. While whites had the most positive perception of courts, even their confidence is surprisingly low. Just under half of whites with a recent courtroom experience agreed that people usually or always receive fair outcomes from the judicial system. About 40 percent of Latinos said their courtroom experience left them with a positive impression. But among blacks, only 15 percent had a positive view. Sometimes, Latinos had even more favorable perceptions of the courts than whites did. For example, Latinos, on average, gave the highest ratings when asked how well they thought courts in their community handle various types of criminal and civil cases. David Rottman, associate director of research at the Williamsburg, Va.-based National Center for State Courts, called the alignment between whites and Latinos “most surprising.” Rottman suggests Latinos might have a comparatively high perception of the courts because they hold generally positive attitudes about American society and have a high respect for authority. He also theorizes that Latinos might come to court with lower expectations because of negative experiences with courts in other countries. In the United States, Latinos may be pleasantly surprised, Rottman says. He calls it the “halo effect.” LATINOS DIFFICULT TO GROUP? Reinaldo Pascual says he’s skeptical of the survey because it fails to distinguish among Latinos demographically. Pascual, born and raised in Puerto Rico, is co-chair of Kilpatrick Stockton’s Latin American practice group, and one of the partners in charge of the firm’s expansion into Miami. “In the Latino community it depends who you ask, and in what region of the county you are doing the asking,” he says. Pascual says he’s not surprised that the opinions of middle class, suburban Latinos are comparable to whites. He says a telephone survey of Latino Americans might be skewed to that demographic. “But ask lower class, Mexican construction workers in Chamblee what their perception is and you’ll get a very different answer,” he says. As for Rottman’s suggestion that Latinos are more positive about the courts because they have lowered expectations, Pascual says, “That’s crap.” “When Latinos come here, they expect to be treated fairly,” he says. “They come with very high expectations as to what this country offers.” But Pascual does accept Rottman’s assertion that Latinos have more respect for authority. Latinos are raised to show respect to their elders, and to their leaders, he says. Fernando Reati, an associate professor at Georgia State University who specializes in the politics and literature of Latin America, says he is surprised by the results of the survey but, like Pascual, finds it difficult to generalize about Latinos. Grouping Latinos together for the purposes of a survey presents unique problems, he says. “You will be amazed by how different we are, really.” For example, he says, Mexicans have a totally different relationship with authority than people from his native land of Argentina. In Mexico, he explains, “everything that you get comes from the government� so you depend on authority.” But in Argentina, he says, people naturally distrust the police. Still, overall, Reati would have expected the Latino response to occupy more of a middle ground between blacks and whites. The similar outlook between whites and Latinos highlights the strikingly divergent view offered by blacks. Rottman says the survey “shows that African-Americans are clearly distrustful of the courts.” That a large body of the population holds this view should be a warning, he adds. IMPLICATIONS FOR LAWYERS Although the survey was conducted to help trial courts better understand the public, Rottman says lawyers can learn from the results. The survey shows how important it is for people to be allowed to tell their side of a case, Rottman says. People who are able to voice their side in court come away with a much higher perception of fairness. In addition, Rottman says, people often hold the same images about courts as they do about lawyers. For example, the survey shows many people doubt the fairness of courts in general, and believe their own positive experience is the exception. Similarly, Rottman says, most people think their own lawyer is fair and honest, but do not feel this way generally about the legal profession.

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