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With participation among lawyers in evaluating Rhode Island’s judiciary having dropped considerably over the past several years, court officials are refocusing their efforts to boost involvement. For the first time, court officials will conduct a widespread distribution of evaluation forms to lawyers during a two-month period, rather than issuing an evaluation form at the conclusion of every case. The goal of changing the time frame, say members of the Judicial Performance Evaluation Committee, is to make it easier for lawyers by providing a specific period within which they know they’ll be asked to fill out an evaluation. In addition, the committee is reminding lawyers, via a letter from the committee and chief judges, of the importance of submitting evaluations, even if they’ve done them before. “Providing an opportunity for anonymous feedback related to judicial performance is a vital tool in our efforts to improve the judiciary,” said state supreme court Justice Victoria Lederberg, chairwoman of the evaluation committee. Distribution of the questionnaires began last month by clerks in the various courts and will continue until June 30. Evaluation forms have been designed to be specific by type of activity in front of a judge, such as trials, motion hearings and pretrial conferences. But officials are now asking lawyers to respond by giving a general appraisal of the judge in the event that they’ve appeared more than once before that jurist. Lederberg said it appears that since the rule requiring judicial evaluations was created in 1993, the “newness has worn off” and attorneys may feel they already had their opportunity to evaluate the same judges year after year. “With all things being equal, lawyers are busy and their time is valuable. We hear from the committee members that lawyers wonder why they should do something they’ve already done,” she said. IMPORTANT TOOL Providence lawyer John A. MacFadyen III, a member of the committee, said the evaluations are a necessary tool to allow judges the opportunity to “cross-check their bench performance.” Said MacFadyen, “They are helpful to see trends in a judge’s performance whether positive or negative.” Committee member William P. Robinson III, of Edwards & Angell in Providence, added that if the judiciary is functioning well, lawyers might not feel the need to comment each year. Chief justices of the various state courts, as well as Lederberg, recently penned letters to attorneys asking for their help in filling out the evaluations. In her letter, Lederberg emphasized that all evaluations are completely anonymous and that “composite statistical results are returned to judges once each year, making it impossible for a judge to learn the identity of the evaluator.” The fact that evaluations are provided to judges in one batch once a year, rather than after each one is filled out, eliminates the possibility lawyers could be identified as having submitted a questionnaire. That fact may have eluded attorneys. “We took it for granted that attorneys somehow realized the evaluations were given to the judges all at once,” Lederberg said. “Fear that a judge would be able to identify them, at least in part, might be behind their reluctance to fill it out.” Although the judicial evaluation process is important, lawyers and other professionals may be pressed for time, Robinson said. “As society inundates us with demands on our time and requests to do things, there’s a human tendency to only do what is required in life,” Robinson said. “With things that come across our desk, we do them or not do them based on priority.” DIPPING NUMBERS Two of the courts have seen a significant drop in participation by lawyers since the evaluation process was made a rule by the supreme court in 1993, according to statistics provided by the evaluation committee. For example, attorney participation in evaluating supreme court judges decreased from 274 in 1993-1994 to just 34 in 1999-2000. In the Workers’ Compensation Court, 807 lawyers submitted evaluations in 1993-1994, but that dipped to just six in 1999-2000. The reasons for the decline in filling out and submitting the questionnaires vary. For courts like the supreme court and Workers’ Compensation Court, there are a limited number of attorneys who practice in those courts, and they may feel that they could be identified by a judge or that they’ve already provided an evaluation, say members of the committee. The results of the evaluations, which include questionnaires filled out by jurors and litigants, are given to the individual judge and to the chief judge of each court. Comprehensive findings related to the performance of each court are compiled in periodic reports made available to the public. According to the committee, judges were initially apprehensive about the evaluation process and believed that any benefits derived from them would be minimal. There was also concern by the judges that they would be unfairly criticized or attacked by disgruntled lawyers and litigants. In light of the overwhelmingly fair and balanced responses over the years, committee members say, judges have now become more receptive to the idea of the findings of lawyers, jurors and litigants serving as a way to improve their performance. In a report of the committee issued six months ago, judges were asked to respond with comments about the evaluation process. The following are excerpts from those comments, provided to the committee by the judges (not identified by name in the report): “I do read the evaluations and listen to the concerns expressed. If the evaluations contain relevant constructive criticism, I try to respond,” wrote one judge. One judge commented, “Every service provider, including the government itself, can benefit from outside counsel offered in good faith; and the courts are no exception. (Evaluations) gave me a measured view of how I performed and how I was perceived as I did it; each of which gave me a better insight on my performance and how I could work even smarter, faster and better.”

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