Opening Statements

Legislative Efforts Requiring Judges to Hold JD Meet with Mixed Results


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Stanley Forman Reed (back row, left), the last surviving Supreme Court justice who did not graduate from law school, received an honorary degree from Yale in June 1938. Photo by Bettman/Corbis.

In 24 states across the country, judges don’t need a law degree to serve on certain courts. And, despite the questionable appearance of having nonlawyer judges oversee certain cases, recent legislative efforts to require judges to hold a JD have produced mixed results.

In Indiana, where more than 50 of the 75 municipal-level courts don’t require judges to be lawyers, two bills requiring those judges to be attorneys in good standing died in the state legislature this year. “People questioned the integrity of the process if you had sitting judges without legal backgrounds,” says state Sen. Lonnie Randolph, an attorney and former East Chicago city court judge who introduced one of the bills.

The Indiana Judicial Conference supported the proposed legislation, but the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns objected to the financial burdens that would be imposed on municipalities. The group said local governments would need to raise judicial salaries to attract attorneys or risk closing their courts altogether. The average annual salary for nonattorney judges in Indiana was $18,017 in 2009.

In New Mexico, a bill would have required a law degree for county magistrates, but it was gutted by amendments. Now, a high school graduate can be elected or appointed as a magistrate and sit on the bench after 11 days’ judicial training and assignment of a mentor.

Not all efforts failed, though. This spring, the Georgia legislature approved a bill that requires municipal court judges to be licensed attorneys in good standing. The bill is awaiting the governor’s signature. And in Maryland, the state legislature approved an upcoming voter referendum that would require a law degree for certain probate judges who serve on the state’s Orphans’ Court.

Opponents of such legislation are not without ammunition: The Constitution does not require a law degree for Supreme Court justices.

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