GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

February 17, 2009

Web site gives lawyers a chance to judge the judges

By Katie Curley

NEWBURYPORT — Local judges can now log on to find out what attorneys think of them.

Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly recently launched a Web site called "JudgeCenter," which allows attorneys to register online and post comments about each judge, good or bad, as well as rank them numerically in a number of categories from "poor" to "excellent."

While local judges have mixed reaction to the site, local attorneys believe any feedback for judges is a good thing.

"It is a good tool for the Bar and for judges. It is just another opportunity for the two entities (lawyers and judges) to converse," Amesbury lawyer Mack McKay said.

McKay specializes in real estate law but has done district and criminal work as well.

"Everyone is trying to do the best job they can, and whatever tools are there are helpful," he said. "I think it is a positive for both entities."

Personal injury lawyer Dallas Haines said the key to feedback is making it constructive.

"In general, it is a good idea as long as the person doing the reviewing is basing it on honest assessment and not a result obtained in the courtroom," Haines said.

Currently, the Massachusetts court system gathers evaluations on judges from lawyers, court staff and citizens for each county every two to three years. Though the results are shared with the judges, the evaluations are not made public.

"In Massachusetts, we are on an island and it is under attack," said Lawyers Weekly Publisher David Yas. "No judicial elections. No retention elections. No term limits. No provision allowing judges to speak publicly about pending cases. And no public judicial evaluation, until now."

Lawyers who want to post on the site must register and provide their names, firm, phone number, address and e-mail. Mass Lawyer Weekly then cross-checks the information to verify the lawyer's identity but keeps the comments of the lawyers anonymous.

"We don't change anything; we just ask there is no bad language," Lawyers Weekly spokeswoman JoAnn Griffin said. "We post both positive and negative comments to be fair. We don't judge the evaluations, and it is pretty clear what you see is what you get."

Newburyport District Court Judge Allen Swan has not logged onto the site yet but said he doesn't have any problem with people voicing their opinions.

"I can't comment on the JudgeCenter because I haven't seen it yet, but the way the (Supreme Judicial Court) does the evaluations is very fair," Swan said. "I think it's healthy to know what people think. I find constructive comments helpful."

Swan referenced a recent evaluation of him where a juror had noted he or she could not hear him very well in the courtroom.

"I now make it a point to ask jurors if they can hear me and tell them how important it is that they can," Swan said. "Accountability and transparency are the watchwords of the day. I welcome it."

Fellow District Court Judge Peter Doyle said in general the idea is a good one but warns viewers to keep in mind the outcome of the trial could color the person's commentary.

"For a judge, there is always room for improvement," Doyle said. "What you need is consistency. It is no secret that there are conservative, moderate and liberal judges. All an attorney can ask for is that when they appear before a judge they are consistent and nothing comes out of right field."

Doyle also noted there are often unhappy parties after the outcome of any case.

"In a civil case, there is a plaintiff and a defendant," Doyle said. "My best chance is getting a 50 percent satisfaction rate. It doesn't mean my decision is wrong, but there is a good chance the person who is unhappy would go online and write about it."

Griffin said out of the 1,600 responses the site has already received, there is a mixed bag and hardly any judge will have all good or all negative comments.

"It is more than just the ranking and comments," Griffin said. "It includes a biography of the judge, his or her decisions, and it gives you an idea if you're an attorney with a similar case how they may decide your case."

Also part of the profiles are articles from Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly in which the judge was quoted.

Yas said the review center is a needed tool in the Bay State as a way to make judges less untouchable or unreachable.

"The bottom line for me is that I am doing the best job I can and making the best decisions I can based on the case in front of me," Doyle said. "It isn't based on what anyone says in a review."

Katie Curley may be contacted at kcurley@gloucestertimes.com.