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

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.

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.

Other jurists who have been students at NJC, including Judge Cooper, stress that courses at the college help them keep up with new techniques (which some refer to as ''bench-side manner'') in the law, as well as to stay abreast of current US Supreme Court decisions that affect their cases. This is particularly important for those who move from one court to another.

''The theory is that lawyers don't change - they stay in the courts and are knowledgeable,'' explains Dean Watts. But the judge who changes courts as a result of transfer or promotion ''needs an opportunity on a very quick basis to get caught up with what's happening.''

NJC's dean says that whatever is the most current crisis in the courts dictates course emphasis here. Within a few short years, focus at the college has moved from helping judges learn management concepts and so deal with trial court delay to how to understand better the constitutional rights of juveniles learn more about the uniform commercial code for business transactions. In the last few years, all three branches of government have spoken out on victims' rights, Dean Watts says. And judges need to be aware of the ramifications.

Along with ''educating'' a larger number of jurists than it did 20 years ago, the college has tailored its programs for the modern judiciary, which includes younger jurists, more women, and minorities. Ernest S. Hayeck, chairman of the National Conference of Special Court Judges, helps design NJC programs and serves on its faculty. Judge Hayeck of the Central District Court in Worcester, Mass., points out that the judiciary of the 1960s was a club of white, middle-aged, conservative males with similar backgrounds. ''The guys from Massachusetts didn't ask impertinent questions. Only the guys from California did,'' the veteran jurist quips.

Dean Watts adds that the new breed of judges are also questioning traditional legal alternatives. ''They challenge the fact that there is only one solution - and that it is the proper solution,'' he says.

The dean also points out that the role of the judge is constantly changing. The concept of a judge as a ''leader in the community'' began to emerge in recent years, he says. He was expected to speak out on what he saw as needed resources - such as mental-patient facilities, juvenile detention, and alcohol rehabilitation programs. Then the community would have to decide on priorities.

Dean Watts also says that in the era of Chief Justice Earl Warren, additional responsibilities were placed on judges to protect rights of individuals - even if their lawyers didn't cover those issues. Also, the judge was supposed to prevent ''reversible error'' (by which a decision could be overturned by a higher court on constitutional grounds) in terms of guaranteeing a fair trial to both sides.

''When I went on the bench a number of years ago, judges simply ruled and gave no reasons,'' he says. ''Now the tendency is for judges to state the reasons for what they are doing.

''This causes problems. It adds up to appeals . . . and frustration in a lot of cases. But in the long run, it probably makes for better justice than the judge simply making rulings and not explaining to people why.''

Judges who come to school at NJC pay $300-a-week tuition. Some states underwrite all or part of these costs. Special courses, such as the one dealing with crime victims, are financed by the American Bar Association, National Institute of Justice, and private foundations. In 1984, the NJC will offer special curricula for rural judges, and special training for those associated with city jails in addition to its full complement of courses.

Florence K. Murray, associate justice of Rhode Island's Supreme Court and a member of the board of directors of the college, says the program here helps jurists emerge from what is sometimes an isolated and lonely experience. She says it is a good way to get over what she calls the ''Your Honor'' complex.

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