Utah court holds community forums to start dialogue with minority communities
The men and women at the front of the room were introduced as judges, but didn't quite seem the part.
Pants instead of robes, pens instead of gavels. They gave hugs and handshakes instead of rulings.
"Very often when we meet judges, it's not at a good time," courts committee member Jesse M. Soriano said. "We want the public to meet judges at a good time, not when they're faced with some hardship."
As part of an ongoing effort to reach disenfranchised communities including racial and ethnic minorities, and the state's poor and improve fairness and accountability in Utah's judicial system, a panel of judges and court officials led the first-ever Utah State Courts Community Forum at Cavalry Baptist Church on Tuesday. Several more forums are in the works.
By hosting these forums in a range of cities and community hubs, court officials hope to make the judicial process more accessible and regain the trust of the people most affected by legal proceedings.
Legal experts recognize the courts system can convoluted and confusing for anyone, Soriano said. But, he added, the problem is worse among minorities, who also feel underrepresented and misunderstood.
"If I, as a minority, see somebody who looks like me, then I may have more confidence that they'll be fair," Soriano said. "If I feel like they understand where I came from or what I'm about, I may trust them more."
Although more than 21 percent of Utahns are racial or ethnic minorities and 50 percent are women, according to 2012 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, only 9 percent of judges in the state's Supreme Court, court of appeals, district and juvenile courts are minorities and 24 percent are women.
Judge Shauna Graves-Robertson, the only black female judge in the state, said the significance of who she is and what she looks like is not lost on her when she presides at the Salt Lake County Justice Court.
"Any time defendants come before judges, it allays some of their fears when they don't all look the same," Graves-Robertson said. "The numbers of minorities on the bench is paltry comparison [to the number of minority defendants.] I think it makes a big difference for folks to see a judge who's black, who's female."
Because judges are appointed by the governor, the courts have no control over diversity on the bench. What it can control, officials said, is how the judicial system relates and responds to diverse populations.
For that reason, Tuesday was an informal affair.
Cavalry Baptist is Graves-Robertson's church. There, she's known as "sister."
On Tuesday, she told the audience they could call her Judge Shauna.
Several audience members embraced her before the discussion. After, the judge assembled food plates to send home with audience members.
That's exactly what the courts want, officials said to make people comfortable with the system by helping them relate to the judges and personnel who make it work.
Several Salt Lake City residents peppered the panel with questions.
Some had to do with specific cases: "Do grandparents have any rights to fight for their grandchildren?"
Others with perceived injustices: "How come if a rich celebrity gets arrested for a crime and a poor person gets arrested for the same crime, they get different sentences?"
Mary Jane Ciccarello runs the courts' Self-Help Center, which serves the state through online and phone consultation. At the panel, she offered insight into how to handle the system and who to go to for help.
"If you got sued or arrested, what would you do? Where would you go?" Ciccarello asked the audience.
"Cry," answered one woman.
"Well," Ciccarello said. "We're here to help."
More than 30 people attended and interacted with the judges, who said they hope to learn as much from the community as they are able to teach. The information they gather from these forums may be used in recommending future policies or programs to better engage the state's under-represented communities.
The next community forum, which will focus on the Tongan community, will take place on May 9 at 6:30 p.m.
The next Utah Courts community forum will be held May 9 at 6:30 p.m. The location has not yet been decided. Check the Utah State Courts Facebook page for event details.