The Multitasking Judge

The Multitasking Judge

Scenario: A judge conducting a hearing on whether to modify the no-contact order in a domestic-violence case pending trial also signs a stack of routine orders during the hearing. This scenario is based on the transcript of an actual court hearing. Note how the judge handles the prosecutor’s objection at 4:17.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What would a person in the courtroom observing the proceedings think the judge was doing during the hearing?
  2. How important was this hearing to the parties? What was the potential impact of the court’s decision on them?
  3. Would the defendant and the victim believe that the judge took their concerns seriously?
  4. How well did the judge react when the prosecutor objected to a statement made by the victim? Was the judge in full control of his courtroom at that moment?
  5. How might a judge better show that he or she is listening and takes the concerns of the parties seriously?

  1. The judge in the real hearing was signing a stack of routine orders. An observer would certainly see that he was doing something unrelated to the hearing—this hearing didn’t involve extensive paperwork.
  2. This hearing was critically important—the parties’ financial livelihood had been interrupted since the defendant couldn’t drive himself to work and the rest of the family depended on his income. Both defendant and victim came to the hearing hoping to change that situation, and whatever orders were made would stay in place for at least another four months (pending trial). If a plea agreement is reached later, this hearing may remain their primary experience with the court system.
  3. Would you feel that way if you were presenting an important matter and the judge was doing other things, not making eye contact, and generally distracted? The judge felt that he was paying attention—and he generally was, though with some delay—but he didn’t communicate that.
  4. The judge failed to look up until the victim had essentially sustained the prosecutor’s objection on her own by moving on—and the judge never said anything. This slow response happened because the judge was trying to do two things at once, i.e., multitasking. Studies show that the vast majority of people—around 97% in a controlled experiment by psychologists—cannot multitask without suffering diminished performance. See Casey, Burke & Leben, 49 Ct. Rev. 76, 89-90 (2013), available at
    Multitasking in the courtroom not only degrades the judge’s mental performance; it also gives the impression that the judge is not fully engaged with the matter at hand.
  5. In the “For Further Information” section (below and in the participants’ handout), there are links to suggestions for observable courtroom behaviors that promote perceptions of fair treatment. We suggest taking a look at those materials. Some of the items noted are making eye contact, the judge introducing himself or herself by name, addressing parties by name, showing respect for other people’s time, allowing participants to voice their perspectives or arguments, and clearly explaining procedures and rulings.

For Further Information:

  1. For information about multitasking, including the percentage of people who suffer a loss in performance when they multitask, see Pamela Casey, Kevin Burke, & Steve Leben, Minding the Court: Enhancing the Decision-Making Process, 49 Rev. 76, 89-90 (2013), available at
  2. For a discussion of courtroom behaviors that promote a sense of fair treatment, see So What Courtroom Behaviors Promote Perceptions of Fairness, Procedural Fairness Blog, Nov. 5, 2014, available at, or look at the Courtroom Observation Report citizen volunteers use for the Utah Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, available at .