Ideas from the Front

Bench Learners

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Sitting on the bench has always meant more than occupying the same chair. All judges must be able to move beyond their “own little way of doing things,” says James Wynn Jr., an appellate judge in Raleigh, N.C., who also serves as vice-chair of the ABA’s Judicial Division, “and keep abreast of substantive and procedural changes in the law.”

Today, however, those changes aren’t limited to the law alone. The issues coming before the courts are changing, too, as are the public’s expectations of what a judge should be able to do.

It is all part of a trend to have difficult social issues—mental health, drugs and alcohol, family law issues—placed before the courts, says Hollis L. Webster, a trial judge in Illinois state court who also chairs the state’s judicial education committee. And it also is the reason behind the growth of judicial education courses, not necessarily in the number of classes offered, but in the types of topics addressed. There have always been usual suspects like docket management and legal writing. But Webster notes that judges now can learn about such issues as security, mental health, addiction and ADR. It is, she says, “a direct correlation to what the public expects of the courts.”

The public, it seems, is expecting a lot more. And the judicial system is responding with a rapidly growing number of specialty courts, including family courts, elder courts, domestic violence courts and drug courts. In many of these new tribunals, judges take a more hands-on approach to solving problems. In drug courts, for instance, judges are usually active in the rehabilitation process. They get to know individual offenders, and they work closely with prosecutors, social service providers and others to help offenders get clean and stay straight. It’s a demanding role new to many judges—which is why they are eagerly embracing courses in how to perform these duties, says Maureen Conner, who directs the Judicial Education Reference, Information and Technical Training Transfer Project at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

Case in point: A course offered by the National Judicial College called “Practical Approaches to Substance Abuse Issues” teaches judges to recognize the signs of drug abuse, interpret drug test results and select appropriate judicial strategies and tools for treatment.

In family law, judges must appreciate that they’re dealing with more than a foreign litigant’s language. “A family might find it culturally appropriate to deal with a spouse in a certain way that would be domestic violence here,” Conner says. “So judges must decide whose standards apply.” Luckily, there are courses such as “Enhancing Judicial Skills in Domestic Violence Cases,” offered by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, created specifically to help judges cope with complicated family law issues.

Getting In Step with Science

Science has also brought judges back to the classroom. “More and more legal issues concern science,” says John Cooke, deputy director of the Federal Judicial Center. “In recent years, there’s been a growth industry in courses relating to almost any kind of science—from biology and genetics to statistical analysis, medical issues and technology.” Judges say it’s no longer enough to learn about scientific issues the old-fashioned way, from expert witnesses. “While we learn from the experts who come to court, we need to become better gatekeepers; we need to be able to know, for example, who is competent to testify,” Webster says. Such concerns are driving enrollment in courses like “How to Tell Good Science from Bad Science,” which has been offered by West Virginia’s Supreme Court of Appeals.

The Sept. 11 terror attacks also have contributed to the breadth of new courses. Cooke notes that a law and terrorism program offered by the center was very successful. Wynn, for one, is applauding the expanded educational offerings. “Everybody would like to have a fair court,” he says, “and a fair court is properly informed.”

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