Opening Statements

A More Approachable Bench

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Many judges believe that half the people who appear before them will leave disgruntled, says Kevin Burke, a Min­neapolis jurist. But it could be worse. They could leave thinking the judge was a jerk.

That’s the message Burke delivers to state court judges in the seminars he leads on how to be more amenable to court participants, pro se litigants, lawyers and clients.

“Judges don’t realize how they come across to people, and most people won’t give them an honest answer,” says Burke, a member of the Hen­nepin County District Court bench.

If parties don’t think a judge is paying attention, Burke adds, they leave the court with a negative impression.

So in his seminars, he calls on judges to be mindful of common practices—like using a laptop to take notes on the bench. Although such actions are innocent, parties who don’t know better might think the judge isn’t listening to them.

And sometimes trying to appear neutral just comes across as ornery. He mentions what one judge at a North Carolina seminar told him: “I’m here to call it right; I’m not here to make people happy.” Burke disagrees: “If a doctor said something like that to you, you’d never go back.”

Burke has been making presentations since 2001, and he usually gives at least nine a year—at no charge—at state court judicial gatherings across the country.

He was inspired to start giving presen­tations after a local television news crew followed him around one day in the 1990s, when he served as chief judge. The foot­age aired as part of a “day in the life of a judge” series. Burke didn’t think the coverage was unflattering, but it did get him thinking about ways the Hennepin County court could improve.

So Burke brought in a “secret shopper” to observe colleagues. The goal was to capture how the court appeared as a whole, rather than focus on individual evaluations.

The secret shopper was actu­ally a nonverbal-communications professor, and Burke admits that her findings were somewhat hard to hear.

“She said, ‘I understand why when you get in the elevator you go to the corner and look down. What I don’t understand is why you do that on the bench,’ ” Burke recalls. The court staff, the professor noted, was even worse than the judges.

“You can go into some courts, and they all talk lingo that nobody can understand,” he says. “There’s a lot of pushing papers back and forth.”

Some say that good communication is im­pos­sible with every party, especially with a crowded docket.

But Burke says that’s no excuse.

So when you’ve got a filled courtroom and a wordy party, how should a judge keep things moving?

Gently, says Burke, and in a way that conveys the jurist is listening.

“I think a lot of us will just slap on a robe and get on the bench,” he says.

As for trials, Burke likes to think about goals before entering the courtroom. In a class action he has calendared, for instance, both sides have very skilled lawyers. Those lawyers will come in with at least 15 different things they want to discuss, he says.

Burke plans to start the proceedings by stating the issues that concern him. “If you frame the issue, that helps,” he says. “I tell parties that I want to hear them out, but they only have a certain amount of time.”

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