President's Message

Farewell from Judge Kevin Burke

Mary CelesteAs I leave office as President of the American Judges Association, I must say that it has been an interesting experience.  


I know a lot more about courts and judges in the United States and Canada than I did a year ago.  For what it is worth, I think that there are very few, if any, greener judicial pastures out there. To a remarkable degree we face common challenges.  Some of those challenges are budget driven.  Some challenges judges face are driven by trying to find how to be collegial—and by that I mean not how to get a drink after work, but the collegiality that is premised on sharing power with the judges with whom you serve.


The biggest challenge we face, from the United States Supreme Court to a part-time limited-jurisdiction judge, is how to deal with the legitimacy of our decisions.  The public is skeptical about the fairness of our courts. A very recent survey revealed that 19% of people thought the word “intimidating” described their state courts very well. Three-fourths of the people believe that to a moderate to significant extent judges make their decisions based upon their political or personal beliefs.  If we are honest, there is a grain of truth to that observation because judges often see the world differently.  


Judges need to effectively address the erosion of confidence in our decision making process and do so quickly. The American Judges Association has been a leader on the issue of procedural fairness. But for all that we have done since 2007 when AJA adopted the first White Paper on Procedural Fairness, each of us knows that the times don’t allow for complacency. My “last act” as President of AJA will be to promote the new AJA White Paper I have co-authored with Kansas Court of Appeals Judge Steve Leben and Dr. Pam Casey of the National Center for State Courts. The paper is entitled, “Minding the Court: Enhancing the Decision-Making Process.” I hope you will take the time to read it and share it with other judges.


If AJA is to achieve our goal of Making Better Judges, we need to speak with insight on how judges can be not just good but great.  The intent of this paper is to help us achieve the goal we each started out with when first sworn in as a judge: to be the best judge we can be and to serve our community with dignity and honor.


A significant and growing body of research from the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience provides important insights about the decision-making process. Frankly, not many of us have had the time or inclination to follow these developments. Busy dockets take priority.


But how information is processed can affect fair processes and just outcomes. Judges who aspire to be great—not just good—at their profession need to focus on how to become better at making good decisions. I hope that you will take the time to read the White Paper and to share it with judges that you know. 


My tenure as President of AJA was only possible because I had a lot of support and understanding. My wife, Susan, is a saint: she has put up with all my travels, done great work as a judge, and had extra duties caring for our 7-year-old daughter, Kate, while I’ve been gone. When I became President of AJA, I said it was an honor, and the reward I got was an abundance of friendships I will treasure forever.  


Thanks for your support.


All best,


Kevin S. Burke