Practical Implications of Current Domestic Violence Research: For Law Enforcement, Prosecutors and Judges

Published June 2009

Chapter 7. Judicial Responses

Section 12 — Does judicial demeanor make a difference?

Although few studies have looked at judicial conduct specifically, a multisite study in Massachusetts found that judges issuing orders fell into three categories: (1) those with "good-natured demeanors," who were supportive and informative with victims and firm with abusers; (2) those with "bureaucratic demeanors," who were firm and formal with all parties; and (3) those with "condescending, harsh and demeaning demeanors" but who were often good-natured with abusers. The research found that victims felt more empowered, listened to, and were more likely to retain orders issued by the first category of judges rather than the two other groups. The first group was also more likely to cooperate with prosecutors on concurrent criminal charges against the abusers. Most of the judges were found to be in the first group. [182]

Another study compared two Massachusetts courts within 10 miles of each other. One court was characterized as "user friendly" for victims, with a special office for victims to complete forms as well as special court sessions so petitioners did not have to wait to see judges. The other court was more bureaucratic, with no special offices or sessions for victims. Victims in the first court had an 80 percent retention rate (i.e., they returned to obtain permanent orders after the temporary orders expired), whereas those in the other court had a 20 percent return rate. [101] Similarly and perhaps for the same reason, specialized domestic violence courts have also been found to increase victim order retention rates. A study of a District of Columbia domestic violence court found that it increased retention from 40 to 55 percent after imposition of the specialized domestic violence sessions. [200]

In a related study of upstate New York courts, a study across multiple jurisdictions found that the demeanor of the judge also reverberated across the criminal justice system. It found that, even compared to a "rights-oriented" judge who held police and prosecutors to a high evidentiary standard (which they often met), a judge who strongly believed that domestic violence cases did not belong in court stifled and discouraged both domestic violence arrests in the community and prosecutions in court. [227]

Implications for Judges

Judges should strive to create user friendly, safe court environments for petitioners, be sympathetic to the parties before them, but firm with respondents once abuse has been determined. Thus, victim concerns are validated, and respondents' abusive behaviors are clearly condemned. (Research basis: Limited studies confined to three different court jurisdictions in Massachusetts.)

Date Created: June 5, 2009