"Tell It to the Judge" Becomes More than a Slogan

Judge Eileen Olds '82 Initiates Community Outreach Program

"Tell It to the Judge," a euphemism for 'talk to someone who can do something about your problems,' now denotes a multi-year community outreach initiative where citizens can give voice to their concerns about fairness and justice, thanks to Judge Eileen Olds '82. Olds currently presides as a judge of the Chesapeake Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court in Norfolk, Va., after serving four years as chief judge.

While president of the American Judges Association (AJA) for the 2007-08 term, Judge Olds inaugurated a program, in which the general public, people who are served by the justice system, could learn how the system worked, and give input and feedback about that system.

The AJA serves as the 'The Voice of the Judiciary' for American and Canadian judges, and is the largest independent association of North American judges. Olds was the first AJA president from Virginia in the organization's 50-year history.

"We've had a phenomenal year getting the 'Tell It to the Judge' program started," Olds said, "I didn't expect to accomplish as much as I did during my year as president, but we got off to an exciting and productive start." The program allows citizens and judges to directly talk about key issues and concerns within the court system.

A Phase I pilot program surveyed judges in 10 jurisdictions, Federal and state, throughout the United States, to learn some of the issues that most concerned litigants in their courtrooms. The opinions of judges and their courtrooms were broad-based, and data was compiled for the AJA by the National Center for State Courts, located in Williamsburg.

"Litigants were very happy to learn that, as judges, we wanted input from them - their ideas," Olds said. "Using the baseline issues from our judges' surveys, we launched the next phase."

Based on those surveys, Olds also asked two judges to begin training fellow adjudicators in nonverbal and verbal communications skills. She hopes that these skills will become de rigueur as part of the judges' training on a national basis.

AJA leadership anticipates that this program will become a multi-year project that will culminate in community forums around the country. One such venue has already taken place in Ann Arbor, Mich., where initial meetings uncovered peoples' misunderstandings and perceptions of judges' and citizens' ideas of procedural fairness, and have given citizens a forum to recommend changes to a panel of judges.

"Litigants are more concerned with fairness than they are about the actual outcome of their cases," Olds said. "We found that people make the distinction between procedural fairness, and what they think is fair. When people believe that their voice has actually been heard in court, we have seen an increase in both compliance and an appreciation of the justice system itself. Therefore, we realize that as judges it is better to inform litigants about the 'why' of what happened in court than to dismiss them with their questions unanswered.

"As more people participate in these community gatherings," she added, "we hope that 'Tell It to the Judge' will increase people's understanding of the judges' rulings in our courts, and increase judges' understanding of what citizens need to know about those decisions."

Olds said that as a second grader, vociferously awaiting her chance to be center stage in a school play, her teacher turned to her and said, "you talk so much, one day you'll be a lawyer." Instead of hushing her up all the time, Olds added, "she gave me the positive reinforcement that every child needs to pursue a dream." Olds was a psychology major at the University of Virginia, and only decided in her last year there to apply to law schools.

"Undeniably, attending William & Mary Law School is one of the best decisions I ever made," Olds said, "and each day I am reminded how fortunate I was to have such an excellent legal education. It is a great source of pride to say that I am a graduate of William & Mary Law."

Olds was the first woman to serve as as a judge in the First Judicial District of Virginia. During law school she was inducted into Phi Alpha Delta Law Fraternity, served as president of the Black American Law Students Association, and was a founding member of the Williamsburg Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, a national service organization.

She began her legal career in private practice, specializing in criminal defense and domestic relations law. In addition, she was appointed in 1984 by the Attorney General of Virginia to represent the State Department of Highways and Transportation, and reappointed in 1986. She also served as a Commissioner in Chancery and as a Divorce Commissioner

In 2007, Olds was given the Distinguished Jurist award from the National Association of Women Judges. She also received the prestigious Thurgood Marshall award from the National Bar Association for her extraordinary commitment and personal contributions to the advancement of civil rights. Olds has served as a Tazewell Taylor Jurist-in-Residence at the Law School.