Institutional knowledge: Michigan judge shares court's core values, culture of service while in Uganda

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 By Beth Anne Eckerle

Legal News
 
In the process of building a model democratic institution, there is a singular hurdle that must first collectively be leapt: Its leaders must earn the respect of their citizenry.
 
In the Ugandan legal system, that sense of trust and fairness has been lacking among its citizens, whether legitimately or only in perception. One of Michigan’s most respected judges, the Hon. Cynthia Stephens, was invited recently to help turn around that perception.
 
She was asked by the International Law Institute’s African Centre for Legal Excellence to share insights with the magistrates of this Eastern African nation into the U.S. and Canadian legal systems and how to improve what the Ugandans called “public relations.”
 
“Recent survey data showed 60 percent of people in Uganda believed it was solely who you knew that determined how cases were handled,” said Stephens, a Michigan Court of Appeals judge since 2008. “I was asked to bring them what I described as better practices. I taught them public information strategies, not spin-doctoring. The idea was to facilitate a process where the public would get greater information about what was happening in the court system that in fact they own.”
 
During a week-long training seminar in September with 22 of Uganda’s top magistrates, Stephens shaped daily courses around the standards she upholds within her court, the First District of the Michigan Court of Appeals.  
 
Stephens’ push was paramount for a country that has been marked by upheavals and civil war dating back at least five decades, spurred in part by rapid transitions from one government to the next. Stephens explained that because Uganda is ruled as a British colony, the official language is English in court proceedings, though many members of the various tribal groups do not speak the language. Faced with criminal accusations or legal proceedings, many do not understand what is taking place.
 
 “It’s not easy to trust,” Stephens said, “that which you do not understand.”
 
Prioritizing the challenges
 
Language differences are only one of the challenges facing the Ugandan legal system, Stephens discovered. Another is the ability to effectively communicate in a country that does not have an adequate and reliable electrical supply. 
 
“The judges of this country do not have a well-developed infrastructure that allows for rapid communication,” she noted. “While they have computers, the computers can only run when the electrical supply is functioning.”
 
When they are asked for opinion or comment, another set of challenges arises — even here in the United States, because of the potential for appeal, according to Stephens. 
 
“In the U.S., our canons say we speak through our orders,” Stephens said. “The prohibition against discussing active cases must be balanced with the responsibility to have an open and easily understood justice system.”
 
A part of Stephens’ presentations covered various avenues to assist the public in getting more familiar with the court system; for example, courts can host “open days” when citizens have a town hall-type meeting with the court administrators and judges.
 
“While they couldn’t answer questions about a specific case, we talked about how they can develop a public information forum that is structured. We also talked about how judges can speak in plain language — albeit it may be a foreign language or a secondary language for some — but to use plain English exclusively instead of very formal legal terms,” Stephens shared.
 
Together, the group practiced writing press releases including the “who, what, when, where, why” of journalistic tenets; reviewing media releases written by others; and how they can get their message out to self-declared biased media who frequently choose one political point of view and share it on their mastheads.
 
“One of their biggest challenges is, how do they get their side out there? When the media says ‘X’ happens, what do they do about it if that reporting was inaccurate?” she said. 
 
Among the most important points she delivered to the diverse group of magistrates, which included about seven women (one of whom had to leave to give birth) and a blend of races, was to “develop a culture of service that started out with the presumption that the court system is there to serve the public, as opposed to control the public,” she said.
 
To do that requires an adherence to core values, she noted. 
 
“I imparted that they should have a consistent message that addressed the core values of integrity, competence and transparency, and if those are your core values, whenever you answer a question, whenever you make a decision, it’s supposed to be based on those core values,” Stephens emphasized.
 
 A highly regarded judge
 
Her own adherence to those values has earned Stephens, 62, numerous recognitions through her lengthy career in Michigan’s judicial system. She was recently re-elected to a 6-year term on the Court of Appeals — a process, she noted, that amused the Uganda magistrates. They are appointed for life under commonwealth law by the president, with a stamp of approval from Parliament.
 
“They found the elections the most amusing,” she said. “They thought that was the most ridiculous thing. They can’t fathom how a judge can possibly stand for election.”
 
Prior to her appointment to the Court of Appeals in 2008, Stephens served as a general jurisdiction trial judge for 23 years. She was appointed to the Wayne County Circuit Court in 1985 after service as a 36th District Court judge in Detroit.  
 
Prior to her election to the bench in 1981, she served as vice-chair of the Wayne County Charter Commission, associate general counsel to the Michigan Senate, regional director for the National Conference of Black Lawyers-Atlanta office, and consultant to the National League of Cities Veterans Discharge Upgrade Project. She is an Emory Law School graduate, earning her bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan 
 
Many civic and religious organizations have honored Stephens, including the inaugural Woodrow Smith Community Service Award from the Shrines of the Black Madonna, the Golden Heritage Award from Little Rock Baptist Church and the Susan B. Anthony Award from the City of Detroit Human Rights Department. She was awarded the State Bar of Michigan’s highest honor, the Roberts P. Hudson Award in 2005. 
 
Observations on Uganda 
 
While in the Ugandan capital of Kampala for two weeks, Stephens was able to spend some time observing the lifestyle of those who live there. Kampala is a major cosmopolitan city in African terms, but would likely seem a little less so by American standards. For example, cattle often roamed alongside courthouses, and the main mode of transportation is by boda-boda, or motorcycle. Women must sit sideways while riding so as to not straddle the male driver.
 
The judicial officers who took part under the judge’s tutelage traveled to Kampala from each of the eight states within the country, some coming from hundreds and hundreds of miles away. 
 
She left with an appreciation for their concern and efforts to create a better system, and also with a renewed insight into the U.S. reliance on technology, for better or for worse.
 
“I have an incredible appreciation for technology, and also an appreciation for its limitations,” Stephens said. “The trip was a reminder to me about our reliance on technology and if it becomes a replacement for relationships, it becomes ineffective.”
 
In that regard, the Ugandans were most interested in how judges manage social media in the United States. 
 
“Frankly, we’re not at a very different place than they are regarding social media and the judiciary,” she noted.
 
In the U.S., for example, several judges have been reprimanded for using Facebook and Twitter because of the perception that “friending” or “liking” a certain person or organization could be viewed as endorsement. 
 
“On the other hand, we’ve had judges who make excellent use of social media for public education and have been very encouraged to do that,” she said. “There is a group working now on how social media can be most effective in assisting us in being transparent.”
 
 International interests
 
Back home in much more urban Detroit, Stephens finds herself online often, following the goings-on in Eastern Africa. The Ugandan legal system is at a crossroads, with the chief justices of both the Supreme Court and the Trial Court off the bench due to age limitations. The president, Yoweri Museveni, is so far refusing to reappoint, so both positions are currently filled by interim justices.
 
“There are pending major changes right now in their system,” Stephens noted. “It brings to light the issue of the meaning of the popular vote. I go online on a daily basis from home to read about what’s going on.”
 
She also became more keenly aware of the issues surrounding civil liberties while in Uganda. During her trip, the deadly Kenyan mall terrorist attack was playing out in front of an international audience. 
 
“It was interesting to me there because in Uganda, you are searched whenever you enter any building — hotels, restaurants, they search you. There are people with Carbine rifles everywhere, and it was very disconcerting to me until the day that they took over the mall in neighboring Kenya” Stephens recalled. “At that point, it became comforting. It reminded me, too, about judgment in terms of appropriate civil liberties. The decision to protect civil liberties is very complicated.”
 
Those decisions are taken with great seriousness by Uganda judges, Stephens indicated. 
 
“They take their work as seriously and are as concerned about core judicial principles as anyone here,” Stephens said. “Uganda is a country where by and large the many tribal groups and clans and religious orientations function without conflict. In one court, for example, the judge is a Muslim and his deputy belongs to the Ugandan Christian Church. And the women in the sessions were not treated any differently than the women are here. There was respectful interaction and while I may have been a surprise to them, it was not apparently an unpleasant surprise.”
 
She left feeling that the judges absorbed her messages and insights, with renewed confidence to move forward for the betterment of the Ugandan citizenry.
 
“The judges were looking forward to having a more open court system,” she said, “and to be on the ground floor of developing it.”