The Benefits of Bench and Bar Relations
The Bencher | January/February 2023
By Judge John I. Guy
To suggest that meaningful communication between judges and attorneys is beneficial to the administration of justice is like opining that discourse between a patient and a therapist might be helpful. It’s axiomatic. Not only is interaction between the bench and bar beneficial to our judicial system, it is essential to the personal and professional growth of both groups. And this contact is just as important outside court as it is within the courthouse walls.
As with all relationships, the most important element is effective communication—that is, the conscientious sharing of ideas and experiences. Effective communication promotes trust. It builds familiarity. It leads to workable solutions. And, perhaps most importantly, effective communication fuels innovation.
In the context of our judicial system, that’s where the American Inns of Court and other voluntary bar associations stand in the gap. These groups are the most prevalent and most effective means of advancing bench and bar relations. They give judges and lawyers the opportunity to work together, learn about each other, and improve our system of justice.
A broader example of the benefits of the interaction between judges and lawyers was the nationwide collaboration to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Think about where we would be had judges and lawyers not come together at the local and state level to share ideas and concerns and to find practical solutions. Do you think judges could have created the emergency and administrative orders that they did without input from lawyers? Do you think lawyers would have successfully waded their way through the morass of the pandemic without the assistance of the judiciary? Though judges and lawyers work in the same system, their roles and responsibilities are very different. Communication isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity.
The reaction to the pandemic is an example of the benefits of collaboration on a global scale. But the benefits of interactions between the bench and bar on a more local and personal level are even greater. From enhancing access to justice, to improving professionalism, from mentoring and educating, to performing community service, the joined forces of attorneys and lawyers is invaluable. It’s incumbent on each Inn or bar association as a whole, and their membership individually, to breathe life into these ideals by intentional and targeted activities.
The opportunities for interaction between judges and lawyers on a more informal level comes in many forms. It might occur at a monthly Inn or bar association meeting, after-hours event, or community service project. All of these interactions allow judges and lawyers to learn things about each other that they might never come to know in court. That contact is what paves the way for progress. There are things you learn about others while standing shoulder to shoulder, painting the exterior of a building, that you just don’t pick up at a sidebar conference.
I recall participating in a service project of a local Inn of Court where its members—judges and lawyers—purchased and delivered meals to a home for adults with special needs. I met an attorney and her husband at a local barbecue restaurant where we collected the meals and followed each other in our cars to the residence. I hadn’t before met this attorney, and because she doesn’t practice in my area of law, may never have had that opportunity. Yet in less than an hour, I learned more about her and her family than I do with attorneys that appear in front of me on a regular basis.
Perhaps the most progress in fostering relationships between judges and lawyers occurs rather unintentionally around a dinner table. When we share the salt and pepper with the person seated next to us we are just as apt to share our experiences. And when we pass the salad dressing we are just as likely to pass on ideas. There’s just something about “breaking bread” with someone that breaks down barriers and opens lines of communication. As bestselling author Barbara Coloroso put it, “There is something profoundly satisfying about sharing a meal. Eating together, breaking bread together, is one of the oldest and most fundamentally unifying of human experiences.”
Of course, one of the cornerstones of the American Inns of Court is education. Each program is designed to educate members on a substantive or procedural aspect of the law. But in my experience, it’s the conversation between judges and lawyers before, during, and after the program that tends to be the most productive. It’s the discussion and sharing of ideas about the application of the information that leads to change and best practices. Perhaps the most productive programs are those that include panel discussions with judges and lawyers, addressing an area of local concern. Countless times I’ve left such a meeting knowing that the communication between lawyers and judges has resulted in a positive change in the administration of justice.
The opportunities for interaction between the bench and bar abound. The most common such interactions are the regular monthly meetings of Inns of Court and bar associations. But there are also a variety of other occasions. Many local bar associations host morning coffee events with judges, judicial assistants, and lawyers. Others have “lunch and learns” with attorneys and judges. Still others host gatherings at local sporting events, holiday celebrations, and community service projects. If the desire is present, there are many ways for the bench and bar to meet in informal settings.
Mentoring is another way judges and lawyers can learn from each other and foster professionalism. The mentoring relationship bridges the gap between newer and more experienced attorneys. It’s traditional at an Inn program for there to be a “mentoring moment.” And while each one is unique, there’s always a common thread: An experienced attorney or judge has said something or done something that a younger lawyer has carried with them throughout his or her career. Each of these shared experiences improves professionalism and causes attorneys and judges alike to scrutinize their own practices and conduct.
Inherent in all of this is the comfort level that attorneys have in opening a conversation with a judge. This shouldn’t be an issue. Attorneys should recall that before any judge ascended to the bench, he or she toiled in the well, typically for many years. Every judge was once a practicing lawyer, and as such, faced the same or similar challenges and questions as lawyers today. Despite suggestions to the contrary, judges haven’t forgotten their experiences as practicing lawyers. Most judges, and perhaps all who make their way to such an event, welcome the opportunity to discuss the practice of law with attorneys. As stakeholders, judges should be very willing to share information that will improve the administration of justice.
Indeed, many codes of judicial conduct encourage judges to participate in events outside their traditional duties. For example, Canon 4B of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct encourages judges “to speak, write, lecture, teach, and participate in other quasi-judicial activities concerning the law, the legal system, the administration of justice, and the role of the judiciary as an independent branch within our system of government…” Similarly, Canon 4 of the Code of Conduct for United States Judges provides, “A judge may engage in extrajudicial activities, including law-related pursuits and civic, charitable, educational, religious, social, financial, fiduciary, and governmental activities, and may speak, write, lecture, and teach on both law-related and nonlegal subjects.”
When speaking with a judge outside court, attorneys should be mindful of encroaching on an ex-parte communication. Ex-parte communications are generally defined as contact with the court, without the opposing party or counsel, regarding a specific case. Similarly, judges are not permitted to comment on pending or impending cases. Also, judges may be loath to comment on a ruling or decision of another court. So, attorneys should not be reluctant to approach a judge and begin a conversation, as long as the attorney has no intention of discussing a particular case and the contact would not otherwise evince the appearance of impropriety.
When deciding on a topic for discussion, perhaps attorneys and judges should remember Eleanor Roosevelt’s sage advice on the subject: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”
Frequent interaction and meaningful communication between the bench and bar should be a goal of every system of justice. It advances ideas, promotes growth, and develops relationships that further the oaths taken by every lawyer and judge. The American Inns of Court, and other voluntary bar associations, are the vehicles for these ideals.
Judge John I. Guy is a circuit court judge in Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit and has been assigned to the Family Law Division since January 2016. He is a member of the Chester Bedell American Inn of Court and a member and past president of the Florida Family Law American Inn of Court in Jacksonville, Florida.