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Off the bench, into the classroom: judges go to school in Reno

By Curtis J. SitomerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 20, 1983

Reno, Nev.

Clarence Cooper, a young black man, was going to ''school'' here in Nevada when word came that he was needed back home in Georgia to take part in one of the most celebrated murder trials in recent decades.

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Another black, Wayne B. Williams, had been accused of killing 29 black youths in a bizarre series of slayings that had terrorized Atlanta's poor neighborhoods for two years, between 1979 and 1981.

Williams was eventually convicted of these murders and given two life sentences by the court. Just recently, Georgia's Supreme Court upheld this conviction and punishment.

Shy, soft-spoken, but articulate Clarence Cooper played a major role in the proceedings. He was the presiding judge.

The reason Fulton County Superior Court Judge Cooper was in Reno at the time he was tapped for the Williams case was that he was taking courses in the ''art of judging'' at the National Judicial College (NJC). He is one of a new breed of US jurists who periodically update their legal training at this unique institution with one- to four-week classroom programs on a host of subjects ranging from coping with caseloads to learning new ways in juvenile justice.

The NJC has schooled more than 13,000 US judges, most of them from state courts, over the past 20 years. It is the only academy for judges in the United States which is national in scope. (Several states offer programs dealing with specific, localized courtroom issues.)

Why do judges need to go to school? Simply, says NJC's dean, Ernst John Watts , because ''everybody who judges doesn't necessarily know how to judge.'' This somewhat startling evaluation is from a distinguished legal scholar and former member of the judiciary who served in the Wisconsin courts for 13 years. Dean Watts hastens to explain that unlike Japan and many European nations, US judges are not required to have formal judicial training. Some, including rural magistrates who often preside over one-judge courts, are not even lawyers.

Encouraged by then-Justice Tom C. Clark of the US Supreme Court, NJC opened its doors in 1963 in Boulder, Colo. A year later, spurred by the promise of facilities and grant money, it moved to its present location on the University of Nevada's Reno campus.

''When we started, we had one program and 83 judges . . . and we were very much like a law school because that was the only role model that anybody had to consider,'' explains Dean Watts. Today, the college sponsors 50 programs a year designed for four different levels of students: nonlawyer judges, special court or magistrate-type judges, general-jurisdiction judges, and administrative law judges.

Classroom lectures and seminar sessions are conducted by ''graduate'' judges who are products of the college. They get no pay and often use their vacation time to teach here. Like traditional halls of ivy, bells ring to start and end 50-minute classes, attendance is taken, homework assigned, and students' work evaluated. Certificates of completion are given upon ''graduation.''

Isn't it somewhat humiliating for a judge to have to go to school? And how worthwhile is the training?

Judge interviewed here recently, during a short course on how to more effectively and compassionately deal with victims of crime, gave the college high marks:

Alfred L. Podolski, chief judge of the Probate and Family Court in Dedham, Mass., spoke of the ''wash of different opinions.'' ''We educate each other by being here,'' he said. Judge Podolski has attended three judges' sessions over the years. ''I always learn something here,'' he insists.

James Duke Cameron, associate justice of Arizona's Supreme Court, says he has found that informal ''break'' sessions here are often as valuable as classroom time. ''You develop a support system [by getting to know judges from across the US]. I can now call a judge across the country and say: 'Bill, how are you doing this?' Then we decide that maybe we should have legislation.''

John F. Daffron Jr. of the 12th Judicial Circuit of Virginia also values the cross-fertilizing of ideas from judges of different backgrounds and settings. He says the college helps new judges adjust to their roles on the bench. ''Some people find it difficult going from advocate [lawyer] to umpire [judge],'' he points out.