At NJC, judges learn the ABCs of justice

When students at the National Judicial College (NJC) in Reno, Nev., parse "sentences," they are not studying traditional grammar. They know the subject of their sentence will be a human being; that the object of their diagramming will be justice.

The students are practicing judges and their purpose for coming to NJC is, as Ernst John Watts, dean of NJC since 1974 and a former circuit court judge from Wisconsin, states, "to safeguard the heritage of our common and constitutional form of law." Since its inception in 1964, the college has taught more than 8, 000 out of a possible 23,000 active US justices, how to be judges.

Chief Justice Warren E. Burger stated in an address at the school that NJC "is one of the two most significant developments affecting the administration of justice in this century. No single institution has had the impact on so many people as the National Judicial College."

Four objectives guide its overall efforts:

* Informing judges on the latest trends in the law and on curent significant cases in criminal and civil areas.

* Improving skills an techniques to be applied both in and out of the courtroom.

* Making available to judges the most up-to-date thinking of what standards of judicial conduct and procedure are to be applied in resolving difficult and complex legal and social issues.

* Sensitizing judges to the importance of their responsibilities and impact on society, as well as an understanding of their place in the scheme of democratic government.

Dean Watts talks about continuing education for judges as "a very difficult subject: changing a public image, changing a perception that prevails. And that perception is that if a lawyer becomes a judge by election, by appointment, of by anointment, that that makes a judge."

Implied in his statement is the question: Does society want its judges to learn by trial and error, and if so at whose expense? "On- the-job training is not good enough to make a good judge," he says. "To expect every judge to be completely proficient in all fields prior to the time he needs the law is really quite demanding." By way of comparison, in Japan it takes 10 years before a judge dons the black robes and sits on the bench, and then it is never alone but with two other justices.

When asked what is the most difficult part of providing training for judges, Dean Watts sums it up in one word, "money." It never ceases to amaze him how society through its legislatures will send a person into a court- room to handle some of the most complex cases and issues facing our society without making a corresponding investment to enable that person to administer the best possible justice for society.

In democratic society, Dean Watts points out, the key diference between a judge's function and a lawyer's function is that the role of a lawyer is to be an advocate, whereas a judge must approach the law impartially for both sides in a dispute. A judge's not having the necessary skills to carry out the important role of arbiter affects the whole society.

NJC offers introductory courses for new judges and advanced seminars for veterans seeking to keep abreast of evolving changes in the law. Sessions run anywhere from one to four weeks -- judges often take vacation time for this special study -- with tuition ranging from $300 to $750 and paid for by either the legislature in the judge's home state or by federal and private foundation grants, or by an individual judge.

The curriculum at NJC is broadly based, with general sesssions designed to acquaint trial judges with major legal subjects and skills of everyday use on the trial bench. The college uses the interdisciplinary approach extensively with the content of each session depending on the breadth of jurisdiction exercised by the judge as well as his or her prior training.

Graduate programs treat subjects at an advanced level of instruction and experience and are designed for the judge who has completed a general course. Specialty programs deal with in-depth treatment of particular legal areas, such as search and seizure, evidence, traffic and alcohol, and drugs.

In a given year approximately 150 experienced judges will volunteer (again, often during their vacation time) to serve on the faculty. The only admission requirement to attend NJC is that an individual be a practicing member of the bench -- local, state, or federal.

Ideally, Dean Watts would like to see all judges attending NJC at three separate stages of their careers. The first time as a new judge on the bench for a 10-day to two- week orientation session of "what the judging business is all about." Second, between a year and two years after a judge has taken the bench, for a session on the mechanics of the job. And third, after a judge has spent at least three years on the bench, to update and be kept aware of trends in the judiciary.

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