An Examination of the Power of Public Perception (7/30/97) 
Public perception is often more powerful than reality.

As an example, when a natural disaster strikes, whether it be flooding or an earthquake, you can safely bet your house that a governor or other high ranking politician will hop in a helicopter to survey the damage.  Isn't it amazing how a television camera always makes the trip?

Perception: The governor is doing everything he can to have the geographic area declared a disaster area so that federal relief funds will become available. Reality: If the governor is interested in seeking federal funds, he probably could get more done by working the telephones back in his office than flying over a scene he has already viewed on countless news programs.

In the above hypothetical, the governor may truly care about those that have suffered at the hands of the disaster but politics dictate that he travel to the site.  Doing the realistic thing in the office might be more productive, but public perception will get him re-elected.

But public perception in the often criticized arena of the judicial system causes some legitimate concern.  Nothing makes this point more forcibly that the front page of the Dallas Morning News last week. That particular issue depicted trial judge Anne Ashby in a photograph hugging one of the plaintiffs who had just been awarded millions of dollars in damages against the Dallas Catholic Diocese. The allegations were that the diocese was negligent in failing to protect him against sexual abuse at the hands of a former priest.  The jury obviously agreed with him. I mean really agreed.

The reality is that the young man may be emotionally scarred for life and was probably traumatized again by the demands of the trial.  Your run of the mill psychologist might even opine that he deserves a hug.

On the morning after the trial, however, I would think that the judge, as she looked upon her image dominating the front page of the major daily, would be worried about public perception.

The case, of course, is still not over. A motion for new trial and/or a motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict will certainly be filed. They will need to be ruled upon by Judge Ashby. The case could even be reversed on appeal which might lead to another trial in her courtroom.

Can the judge be fair in these future judicial scenarios? I'm sure she can. Whatever her personal feelings are about the case, she can certainly place them aside and rule on the legal motions based upon the law and the facts.

However, what will be the reaction of the North Texas population when they see the judge's photograph once again but this time under the headline that reads "Judge Denies New Trial"?  Will the perception be that a detached and neutral magistrate has made an appropriate legal decision or will it be that a plaintiff sympathizer has ruled the way a plaintiff sympathizer would be expected to rule.  While the former is probably reality, public perception, in my opinion, will be the latter.

I, like you, find myself getting angry whenever I see an elected official engaged in a photo opportunity. However, the judge's action in Dallas last week has tempered this belief somewhat.

In retrospect, I would have been more comfortable with a photograph of her banging her gavel in an effort to quiet any post verdict outburst from the gallery.  The fact that she had done so only for the cameras does not now seem so distasteful.

Barry Green is the District Attorney for the 271st Judicial District.

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