It’s hard to overstate the importance of the judge in any trial, whether jury or bench or whether in state or federal court. At a minimum, the judge has the power to admit or exclude evidence of all sorts in his or her courtroom. The very best efforts of the trial lawyer, the trial technician, and the whole team can go for naught if their trial exhibits never reach the eyes of the jury or are never considered by the judge.
As one might expect, judges have varying attitudes toward litigators from large firms, trial teams from outside the jurisdiction and, most important for our consulting efforts, courtroom technology and demonstrative evidence. Some judges are technical aficionados themselves and keep up on the latest developments, while some remain suspicious of courtroom electronics and exhibits that they see as too snazzy.
This means that before a trial gets under way, and before the litigation team begins to prepare its trial graphics, it’s important to research the judge. Even among those judges who are inclined to permit courtroom technology, each has his or her own predilections. Some judges may prefer printed trial boards to PowerPoint slides. Some may have the reputation for speeding trials along. Some are colorblind. It’s best to know all of this in advance.
In the old days, word of mouth and courthouse lore were the only ways to research a judge. If a trial lawyer was in an unfamiliar court, he or she often faced a disadvantage. Now, the Internet has leveled the playing field to a large extent.
Here are five resources that we rely on the most to research trial judges when we are conducting jury research, preparing trial graphics or planning the deployment of our trial technicians:
- Judgepedia, www.judgepedia.org, is a comprehensive, up-to-date site that contains vast amounts of current information on state and federal judges. Modeled on Wikipedia, it gives useful background data on thousands of judges and on the state and federal court systems.
- The Robing Room, www.therobingroom.com, is a judge-rating site, where lawyers provide their frank and anonymous views of trial judges. It focuses mostly on federal judges, but some state judges are rated as well. As is true of all rating Web sites, some comments are clearly unhelpful because they are written by people with their own prejudices, and some evaluations are based on a very small sample of comments, but when comments all fall in the same general range, they are very useful.
- [2013 update: this service appears to be closed] Courthouse Forum, www.courthouseforum.com, and its sister site, RateTheCourts, www.ratethecourts.com, are similar rating sites. Their stated mission is to provide the public with “a free and anonymous judicial performance evaluation service.” Some aspects of these sites are a bit outdated.
- RobeProbe, www.robeprobe.com, calls itself the “world’s most trusted judge rating site.” It seems to focus, more than the other similar sites, with identifying judges who are guilty of “unprofessional, intemperate, biased or incompetent” behavior on the bench. It also has a large database of international judges.
- We also rely heavily on cleverly crafted Boolean and proximity Google searches. They can turn up the names of past clerks for the judge, public controversies that the judge may have been involved in, the judge’s memberships and affiliations, and of course dozens of rulings that can give useful clues to the judge’s approach to issues of law and evidence.