Judicial college helps judges keep up with trends

John W. Kern III likes to tell people he runs an ``ideal'' college. ``We have never lost a football game. And we've never had to turn down children of alumni,'' he says with a wink. However, Mr. Kern, a former federal judge who now heads the unique National Judicial College (NJC) here, still has to cope with some of the traditional problems any institution of higher learning encounters -- among them funding, curriculum development, and student recruitment.

And with the recent announcement of NJC's first-ever degree-granting program, this school for judges will even don the official robes of academia.

For over 22 years, the judicial college has lured state, federal, administrative law, military, tribal, and foreign judges into its midst for a wide range of seminars dealing with ``bench'' problems from civil evidence to sentencing policies.

Its courses and conferences last from one to four weeks. Its students observe a rigid class schedule. They complete homework assignments. And they even live in a University of Nevada residence hall.

Judicial jurisdictions around the United States have usually underwritten the costs of ``students'' -- costs which were kept nominal by NJC grants.

But recent cutbacks of federal and foundation funds are forcing the college to commence a $10 million endowment campaign and boost tuition substantially.

Currently, in addition to fees for room and board, judge-students pay $400 for a one-week seminar and up to $1,000 for a month of classes.

NJC's new fund-raising efforts have recently been launched by a provisional $2.5 million trust fund set up by the State of Nevada, which requires matching funds from other sources. The American Bar Endowment has already commit- ted $1 million of the necessary funds.

Dean Kern says upped tuition will produce another $800,000.

Meanwhile, NJC will maintain a strong curricula of 46 courses in 1986, with the expectation of granting certificates to about 1,700 judges.

Further, next summer, the college -- in conjunction with Nevada's state university -- will offer a postgraduate program to sitting judges who already hold law degrees from bona fide law schools.

A judicial master's degree may be earned through several summer sessions, or through a series of shorter programs during the academic year.

Dean Kern says the college's prime aim remains the same as it has been for over two decades -- ``to give judges some understanding of their role in today's society.''

Although many of the courses are earmarked for improving judicial skills and techniques, NJC also offers broader seminars dealing with philosophical questions and art and literature relating to the law, the one-time District of Columbia Court of Appeals judge points out.

``We look at `The Ox Bow Incident' and the trial of Billy Budd. We talk about `What is justice?' and `What is the end of the court system?' '' he explains.

NJC's chief administrator says that societal trends are making judges more conscious of moral and technological trends in the profession and of the impact of the media on the justice system.

``Judges sense that more is expected of them . . . the public watches television and the press more closely. And they are concerned with delay in the courts and [the fact that today] everything goes to the courts,'' Kern adds.

He also points out that current trends in science, medicine, and technology are raising some previously uncharted legal questions about malpractice, negligence, and the use of life-support machines.

``Judges crave more knowledge about these things. And they are also more interested in moral values,'' he explains.

To this end, NJC will offer some specialized courses during the coming year on the use of computers and technology in the courts, handling alcohol and drug abuse, and public and media interaction with the law.

Kern stresses a need for judges to have ``intellectual refreshment'' and to ``stand back and look at their roles in society.''

But NJC's dean also says that those who sit on the nation's judicial benches must be ``dedicated to deciding cases fairly -- but quickly.''

Among the simple courtroom skills he counsels new judges to master: ``Listen. Be patient. Be firm. Learn to calm down a lawyer.''

Curtis J. Sitomer writes the Monitor's weekly ``Justice'' column.

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