|President's Page||The West Virginia Lawyer||November 1999
by Darrell W. (Dan) Ringer
"Readin', 'ritin', 'rithmetic - and civics"
This past February the American Bar Association (ABA) released the results of a nationwide survey on the public's understanding of and attitudes toward the U.S. justice system. The participants in the survey were asked to estimate their own knowledge of the system; were asked a series of questions to test their actual knowledge, and were asked various questions concerning their attitudes, experience, and their feelings about suggestions to improve the system.
The results are interesting. On the "positive" side - 80% of the participants perceive that the American justice system is the best in the world, and 78% believe that the jury system is the most fair way to determine guilt or innocence.
But there were some not so favorable (to us) results - 90% perceive wealthy people or companies often wear down their opponents by dragging out legal proceedings; 78% feel it takes too long for courts to do their jobs; 77% feel it costs too much to go to court; and more than 70% feel that "lawyers spend too much time finding technicalities to get criminals released," and that criminals have too many opportunities for appeal.
Despite the perception that our justice system is the best in the world, 51% of the participants feel it needs a complete overhaul; 70% feel judges should have leeway in sentencing, but 70% also feel that lack of jail space should not be considered in sentencing. While 47% feel most lawyers try to serve the public interests well (36% disagree), 45% feel most lawyers are more concerned with their own self promotion than their client's best interests (33% disagree).
Even though they feel it costs too much to go to court, the respondents also feel that we would be better off with fewer lawyers (51%). Only 29% feel the legal profession does a good job of disciplining lawyers. Only 28% believe "lawyers try to make divorce simpler and less painful."
So who are these people?
The sample group of 1000 was 46% male, 83% White, 8% African American; 69% had at least some college education, 87% were registered voters, 46% had used a lawyer, 70% had experience as a litigant, and 27% had experience as a juror. The ABA says this group "closely matches the profile of the U.S. population."
The sample consisted only of people willing to "express their opinion on the U.S. justice system" in a 15 minute survey with a telephone solicitor working "with M/A/R/C/ Research." Are there doubts that such an approach generates a representative cross sample? Based on the reported determination that 69% of the sample have some college education (the Bureau of the Census says it's 49% for Whites and 39.5% for African Americans), and that 87% are registered voters (the Bureau of the Census says 62.0%), one might suspect the respondents told the interviewers what the respondents thought the interviewers wanted to hear, or what the respondents thought were the "right answers." Nevertheless, these "right answers" are problematic for lawyers.
Only 14% of the respondents reported being Extremely/Very Confident about the legal profession and lawyers. Only 28% feel lawyers work harder and longer hours than do people in most other jobs. Even when lawyers try to participate in good works, 43% feel that "most lawyers do not contribute enough to their community through donations of time, legal services, or money."
Where do these ideas come from?
The respondents were asked to rate a list of information sources, on a 5 point scale, as being "extremely important" to "not important at all." The most important sources of information were personal experience (63%), school or college courses (59%), books/library (58%) and jury duty (58%). Lawyers were viewed as being extremely/very important by 43%. The media didn't do well at all.
While television news was deemed extremely/very important by 41%, news magazine shows such as 60 Minutes were cited as an important source of information by only 37%. Newspapers were identified by 36%, radio news by 31%. At the bottom end of the scale were Radio/TV talk shows (15%), court programs like People's Court and Judge Judy (11%), television dramas (9%) and movies (7%).
Certainly personal experience is a good educator, but do people really rely on school classes as the second most important source of information about the justice system? If they do, how much information are they getting?
There is no longer a high school civics course in our West Virginia schools. When I asked my youngest son (age 15) where he got his information about the justice system he said he'd studied it for one semester in the eighth grade in "civics." He admitted, however, that he didn't really remember much from the class. How could he? A person's ability to comprehend the relationships between local, state and national systems is very limited without some experience to which to relate.
If the second most important source of information about the justice system is truly school courses, it doesn't appear to be working very well. Only 39% of those surveyed could identify the 3 branches of government (legislative, judicial and executive), and 25% could not name even one of the three. A third of the respondents believe that a defendant must prove her/his innocence in a criminal trial. Only 17% could correctly name the United States Chief Justice (William Rehnquist). Most, 67% said they simply did not know. Interestingly, 96% know that a defendant found to be not guilty in a criminal trial can still be sued in a civil proceeding. One has to suspect that such information came from the media coverage of high profile "celebrity" trials.
Lack of education about our system is a major concern to your State Bar. So important, in fact, that this past July your State Board of Governors, at the request of the Citizenship and Law Related Education Committee, adopted a resolution supporting and encouraging the return of a formal civics class to West Virginia's high school curriculum.
What does this survey mean? It's difficult to summarize adequately in a single President's Page. So I strongly recommend you check out the report for yourself. You can access a complete copy of the report Perceptions of the U.S. Justice System, February 1999, at http://www.abanet.org/media/perception/home.html. But the bottom line is that no matter how much those surveyed claim to respect the justice system, they don't like lawyers much, or at least say they don't. It really doesn't matter if they have a good grasp of the facts. We have to live with those beliefs and perceptions, unless we work to change them, and maybe change ourselves in the process.