Recently, I became aware of a website called “TheRobingRoom.com.” I had been retained as co-counsel in litigation pending in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Maryland. My co-counsel, from out of state, asked me about the judge to whom the case had been specially assigned.
Frequently, out-of-state counsel who know me will call and ask me to give them “book” on a judge — that is, a trial lawyer’s assessment, in particular those qualities, habits, peculiarities and other issues the judge brings to the trial of any case pending before him or her. Do they read the memoranda? Do they have an even-handed approach to the trial of the case? Do they possess good judicial temperament? Are there issues or peculiarities that one should know about before appearing before this particular judge?
So, when my out-of-state co-counsel called, I gave him the book on the judge to whom our case was assigned. He laughed, and said that was exactly what TheRobingRoom.com said about the judge. He proceeded to explain what TheRobingRoom.com was — a site by lawyers, for lawyers, to develop accurate data to evaluate their trial judge before litigation begins. It is an independent website run by North Law Publishers, an attorney-owned company based in New York. The company publishes written materials for trial lawyers and collects data and evaluations from lawyers on all of the federal district court judges, and most of the state trial court judges in 32 states, including Maryland.
After our conversation, I visited the website. There, trial lawyers in criminal and civil cases are asked to rate the judge from 1 to 10 on a list of thoughtfully considered rating criteria, such as temperament, scholarship, industriousness, ability to handle complex litigation, punctuality, general ability to handle pre-trial matters, general ability as a trial judge, and flexibility in scheduling.
With respect to criminal judges, the criteria include even-handedness in criminal litigation, general inclination regarding bail, involvement in plea discussions, and general inclination in criminal cases at the pre-trial, trial and sentencing stages.
Finally, in the civil rating area, it includes even-handedness in litigation and involvement in settlement discussions. As to each of these criteria, general and specific, the judges are rated on a scale of 1 (awful) to 10 (excellent).
In addition, trial lawyers and litigants are requested to include comments which, in many cases, are the most interesting of all. Thus, if a judge receives a number of comments with a common thread, then you — as a trial lawyer appearing before that judge — can make certain decisions as to how you should proceed.
Once a circuit court judge receives three or more ratings, those ratings are posted and the judge is ranked alongside his or her peers on the bench. The 10 highest-ranked are categorized as the 10 best in the state, and the 10 lowest-ranking are categorized as the 10 worst.
Public trust and confidence
When I first discussed the site with several colleagues, some of the judges and lawyers were critical of the website because it does not publish the names of those who comment. While the site requires users to provide an email address, it keeps that information and any identities provided confidential to encourage frank expression and to protect commenters from the possibility of retaliation. This is particularly important in a small-town community like those in various parts of this state.
However, the concern about nondisclosure of identities is alleviated when one sees that, once a number of comments are posted about a given judge, a pattern can often be discerned and the data can be self-validating. For example, multiple comments may note that the judge interferes with counsel in the presentation of the case, pre-judges the case before the evidence has been introduced, or intimidates the witnesses.
Clearly, such conduct by any trial judge detracts from and interferes with the justice system, and goes a long way toward explaining why the public, from time to time, loses its trust and confidence in the justice system.
I am on a judicially appointed committee, “The Public Trust and Confidence Implementation Committee for the State of Maryland.” It comprises four judges including the chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, four practicing lawyers including three past presidents of the bar, the executive director of the Legal Aid Bureau and the founder of the Maryland Crime Victims Resource Center. We are evaluating this website (and any other credible websites) to see what lessons we, and the judges who are reported on, can learn from this information. If any judge in Maryland is consistently rated as having negative behavioral characteristics, can he or she be re-trained? Can our judicial institute utilize this information to design education for new judges taking the bench in Maryland?
These are matters which we are evaluating at present, but we also invite you to consider them. Check out the website and, if you have a matter before any circuit court judge in Maryland, please consider reporting your evaluation, favorable or unfavorable, to TheRobingRoom.com so that a greater body of data is accumulated.
As a part of this process, Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, without endorsing this website, sent a memorandum to all appellate, circuit and district judges in Maryland on May 25, advising them of this site and its rating criteria. His purpose was to make each judge aware of the site and to suggest that “a review of the site may be advisable and useful, especially as it pertains to you.”
I have requested the Maryland State Bar Association in a letter of May 14, 2012 and other bar associations and sources to invite lawyers and litigants to comment through TheRobingRoom.com on their experiences (both good and bad) in the state circuit courts in an effort to improve the service to the public. It is clear that the broader the base of the comments by the trial bar, the more reliable will be the conclusions which can be derived from it.
It is my hope that we can utilize the materials posted on the site to help improve our system of justice. However, several things are clear:
* The judges are being judged every day and this process will continue and expand.
* The comments, both good and bad, about the judges should be evaluated by all the players in the judicial system, including the litigants, their counsel, the Public Trust and Confidence Committee and the judges themselves. Like holding up a mirror, credible comments that reflect a pattern of conduct detrimental to the public trust and confidence should cause the conduct to stop. Judges can change. Likewise, the judges that receive positive feedback should be recognized.
* If appropriate data exist  and the judges with poor ratings and conduct are unable or unwilling to modify their conduct and judicial demeanor, then they should be re-educated, reassigned, or referred to the Judicial Disabilities Commission for appropriate action. Individual judges should not be permitted to use the courtroom to inflict substandard justice on the litigants who appear before them.
TheRobingRoom.com was set up to provide “book” to lawyers by lawyers about judges in each state. This data must be broad-based and accurate as a professional and commercial matter for it to be reliable. This same information will be useful to the judiciary, bar associations and disabilities commissions as well. The purpose of this column is to stimulate our thinking and, to the extent you try cases, to encourage you to participate and make comments about the way the circuit court judges in Maryland operate. This will help all of us — the trial lawyers, the litigants, and the judges — to the end that the public has improved trust and confidence in our judicial system.
1. Judicial evaluation, judicial polls and judging the judges have historical antecedents in Maryland. Surveys were conducted by the Maryland State Bar Association, the Section on Judicial Administration and the Baltimore Sun regarding the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City, in February 1975. Thereafter, the Section on Judicial Administration backed an effort to survey trial courts elsewhere the state. The Committee on Judicial Polls was appointed and chaired by Marvin Steinberg. The Washington Star agreed to jointly sponsor and conduct a statistically accurate survey of the trial courts in the sixth and seventh judicial circuits. The latter poll was taken under the direction of M. Peter Moser, then-president of the MSBA. The Star poll results were published in December 1980, with the headline: “Study Rates the Best and Worst Jurists.”
These were anonymous polls of practicing lawyers regarding judicial performance. While valuable when they were published, the polls were static, time consuming, expensive and did not have any lasting impact on the conduct of the poorly-rated judges. Today, the Internet and other technological advances have created an opportunity for the trial bar to have a meaningful impact in the process which is fluid and timely. On TheRobingRoom.com, judges can be rated all day, every day. Also “Court Smart,” a sound recording system, is now in place in all District Courts in Maryland, and most of the Circuit Courts have it as the system expands. This allows a periodic sampling of the court proceedings and some verification of reports of verbal misbehavior.
2. Some of the comments and ratings on the website about a judge appear to be result oriented—I lost the case therefore the judge is bad. Those should be discounted. However, other factual comments made about the judge’s poor conduct at trial which is witnessed by other attorneys and litigants in other criminal and civil cases are very important. If credible/appropriate data of this sort develops in 5 to 10 cases or more, then it should be called to the judge’s attention and remedial action suggested.
James L. Thompson has over 40 years of experience as a trial lawyer, is a Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, was a past president of the MSBA and serves on the Judiciary’s Public Trust and Confidence Implementation Committee. An earlier version of this column appeared in the Montgomery County Bar Journal. The views expressed here are the author’s own, and he has no personal or financial interest in North Law Publishing Co. or TheRobingRoom.com.