For the first time since 1995, the District of Columbia courts system has adopted new rules for judicial conduct, which encourage judges to take a more "affirmative role" in making sure pro se litigants understand legal proceedings.
The new code closely follows the American Bar Association's Model Code of Judicial Conduct, which was adopted in 2007. The Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct for District of Columbia courts released the new rules on Friday, having made few changes to a draft made public in September.
In one notable departure from the American Bar Association's model code, the new code includes a section spelling out “reasonable accommodations” judges in the District of Columbia Superior Court and Court of Appeals can offer to pro se litigants. These include explaining legal proceedings, changing the traditional order of collecting evidence, avoiding legal jargon and making referrals to any resources that might help a pro se litigant.
In one addition to the draft version of the revised code, the rules also permit judges to ask “neutral questions” to clarify information presented in court.
A large and growing number of litigants who come through the civil division of Superior Court do so without a lawyer, court statistics show. Superior Court Chief Judge Lee Satterfield, in an earlier interview, has said that under the existing code, some judges didn’t see authority for taking those extra steps with pro se litigants.
“We want to let judges know that in circumstances…that dictate a greater role, it's appropriate as long as you're maintaining the neutrality of your role,” he said.
Other revisions to the code reflect the court’s efforts to keep up with advances in technology. Judges are already barred from independently investigating the facts of a case, for instance, but the revised code explains that this prohibition extends to looking up information online.
The revised code also gives judges leeway to respond to criticism of his or her conduct in the media, either directly or through an intermediary. Judges are limited from talking about cases beyond what’s already in the public record; in the draft version, the committee warned judges to continue to “exercise caution and restraint in responding to media criticisms.”
The full text of the new code can be found here (PDF).