Whether you’re a lawyer, a defendant, a juror or a member of the public, having your voice heard during a trial largely depends on one person–the judge. As the masters of the courtroom, these robed referees hold the most power and leave the most lasting impression after a verdict is read, whether it’s a criminal trial, a child custody battle or a traffic ticket.After a trial, grievances about a judge’s ruling or behavior are typically restricted to appeals courts or the press. But a new site called Rate My Judge is offering a way for people to anonymously share their opinions on how a judge handled their case.

For anyone who ever used Rate My Professor in college to decide whether to avoid a class, knowing the difference between a teacher with a 1-star rating and a 5-star rating could mean the difference between an A and an F on a transcript. For those about to stand before a judge at trial, the stakes are immeasurably higher.

“The site was conceived as a way to highlight the behavior of judges that often go unseen,” said Laura Coholan, communications manager for La Defensa, the LA-based social justice group that created the site. “Much like CourtWatchLA is doing that work with in person oversight in courtrooms, this is supposed to be a way to do that work digitally.”

Developed and launched over the summer by La Defensa, Rate My Judge has become a way to highlight patterns of behavior and rulings within the judiciary in LA County and hold judges accountable in a moderated public forum that helps peel back the curtain on the legal process.

Compiling a database of judges in the county in every sector from criminal and civil matters to small claims and traffic court, Rate My Judge offers an open forum for review of the justice system. Judges are given a star rating by the public from 1 through 5  based on several factors, including demeanor, sensitivity, neutrality, fairness, lawfulness. There is also a section for comments about how a judge acted in court or any overall critiques on their rulings, policies they’ve upheld or their personal politics.

“He’s very much a political judge and plays favorites to the municipalities and the county of LA. Good luck winning a case in his courtroom,” says one reviewer of a judge with a 1-star rating. “Your best chance is having his decisions reversed at the appellate level, as several of his cases already have.”

Even on the assessment of a  judge with a 5-star rating, a reviewer noted discrepancies on different issues they decide on. “Good on the law, bad on bail/own recognizance issues. No idea as to sentencing never lost a trial there,” the reviewer said.

Each comment in the rating system is moderated by a judicial accountability associate for La Defensa to strip any offensive, libelous or discriminatory language that could get the site shut down. Though sites like The Robing Room already exist and include ratings on judges that often include a fair amount of legal terminology, on Rate My Judge any legalese detected in commentscan be simplified by a moderator in order to make the information accessible to anyone with a sixth-grade reading level.

“The point is for those coming into contact with judges, they are walking into a courtroom armed with knowledge of how this judge has been rated by X amount of other community members on their fairness, their demeanor, how did they engage with people in the courtroom, were they disrespectful or did they have a respectful tone,” Coholan said.

As far as what the judges think– “for judges that have good reviews this probably isn’t a concern on their radar. For other judges, this isn’t their favorite,” she added.

Fighting For Transparency

La Defensa organizers

The site is the latest tool for La Defensa to work toward their goal of creating more transparency in the legal system by shining a light on its impact on communities of color. When it started in 2019, one of the key missions of the 501(c)(4) organization was to shift policy away from incarceration and systemic divestment from Black, Brown and Indigenous communities, and towards reinvesting in those communities as well as alternatives to incarceration. Co-founders Eunisses Hernandez and Ivette Alé and their staff worked to raise funding for programs that would help people get out of prison and jail and come back to communities where they can thrive with mental health support, along with housing and other development programs.

However, the group noticed early on that a lot of the roadblocks to progressive policies came from the judiciary.

“What we have been struggling with is around implementing alternatives to incarceration, especially around pretrial reform, because the judges were the biggest roadblock,” Hernandez said. “We could not impact the judiciary. They met with us a couple of times and after that it was radio silence. And so we figured that we need to figure out a way to get the judges to listen.” Representatives for the LA County Superior Court could not immediately be reached for comment.

Some legal experts say the power of judges to help guide and set policies in place are what make them an impenetrable arm of government.

“Courtrooms have become these ivory towers where people who are unaccountable to us are making decisions that have destroyed lives,” said Titilayo Rasaki, an L.A.-based senior policy and campaigns strategist. “What Rate My Judge is able to do is bring the community into the courtroom.”

Rasaki said many public defenders she knows who’ve interacted with the site are lauding its ability to showcase judges’ behavior as well as their decisions. “Legal practitioners and public defenders see Rate My Judge as an opportunity to finally show what’s going on behind the robes and hold judges accountable,” Rasaki said.

So far, Rate My Judge has most of the roughly 500 LA County judges added to the database. La Defensa’s goal is to eventually clone the system in major counties across the country.

La Defensa believes the data and anonymous ratings of various judges will help educate citizens who often don’t vote on judges during local election cycles, with the goal of transforming the judiciary into one that supports more progressive policies, Hernandez says. The group leader said that one of the first steps in educating people about the system and how to change it is to find out who runs it.

“When you ask around, ‘Who should I vote for judge?’, many people don’t know who is good or bad. Most have no idea about who the candidates running for judgeship are,” Hernandez said.

Protection From Retaliation

Sample of Rate My Judge website

Aside from the posts being reviewed by attorneys with La Defensa for any possible defamation, the site was also designed to protect commenters from any form of judicial retaliation by keeping all accounts anonymous and encrypting data of its users.

“We spent a lot of time and labor creating a website where people would feel safe, where their identities are protected and the comments are anonymous,” Hernandez said. “We’re not asking people for their name, number and address when they sign up for their profile.”

Despite the safety measures taken with Rate My Judge, Hernandez said that getting the public and attorneys to volunteer their critiques of judges is still daunting for those who know how much power they can hold over their case or their career.

“One attorney told me ‘I’m scared, I don’t want to lose my bar card for using [the site],’” Hernandez said. “I told her that if you use the site correctly, there won’t be a situation where you would lose your bar card.”

Offering Awareness

La Defensa organizers handing out fliers in front of LA County courthouse (courtesy of La Defensa)

As Rate My Judge continues to evolve, La Defensa hopes to figure out ways to develop the different phases of the site to incorporate deeper questions that will help them collect data around some of the policy issues involving the cash bail system and pretrial reform, as well as outreach to their increased membership continues to get better. They are also planning on creating Spanish and Mandarin translations for all the comments on judges that are posted on the site.

In the wake of the pandemic, La Defensa started doing digital outreach using Zoom info sessions with public defenders, lawyers and community partners about the site to educate people on how to use it and why it’s important.

As courts slowly open back up, members of the group have also pushed the marketing of the site out of the digital realm. While safely masked, members of the group have physically visited several courthouses across the county from Downtown LA to the Antelope Valley to pass out flyers to lawyers and members of the public to inform them about Rate My Judge. The goal, Hernandez said, is to grow the site on a grassroots level while exposing the hidden aspects of the judiciary and clear the runway to use their data to affect judicial elections for 2022 and beyond.

“We want to see it grow beyond LA County,” Hernandez said. “We hope to expand it for the rest of the state. Because it’s bigger for us, our goal is to reduce the power of the judiciary and reduce the budgets of the judiciary. This is just one step towards doing that.”

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