Literature for professionals. Judges, legislators head to class at Brandeis U.

WHAT manner of man was Royal Earle Thompson, who rose up in his backyard one unbearably hot afternoon and slew a stranger by the name of Homer T. Hatch? ``Sort of a pitiful character,'' ruminates a district court judge, ``a loser rather than a winner.''

``I found myself cheering for him,'' the judge next to him comments.

``I think he showed a lot of class,'' says another judge seated across the table.

Royal Thompson happens to be a character in the short novel ``Noon Wine,'' by Katherine Anne Porter; and these judges have come, not to try him, but to use him as a window into themselves and their courtrooms.

The judges are participating in a Brandeis University program that uses literature to help professionals and executives probe questions of morality and ethics.

The program started in 1980 at the suggestion of Samuel Zoll, chief justice of the Massachusetts District Court System. Judge Zoll was worried that his judges were being swallowed up by their jobs and that they might be losing a sense of perspective in the treadmill of the district courts.

Since then, the program has expanded to include state legislators, corporate executives, public defenders, journalists, and others. More than 90 sessions have been held for better than 1,750 people, according to Sanford Lottor, co-founder of the program.

``Since Chief Justice Zoll called Brandeis [six] years ago wanting a program to treat complex social, moral issues,'' many judges, Mr. Lottor claims, have said it's ``the best thing that's happened to them since being appointed to the bench.''

This afternoon the judges are gathered around a circle of tables on the Brandeis campus, thrashing through the moral issues in ``Noon Wine'' and Robert Bolt's play, ``A Man for All Seasons,'' and Joseph Conrad's ``The Secret Sharer.''

``Well, I'm cautious on people who are going to explode,'' one judge reflects during a discussion of Conrad's main character, a nameless young captain who finds himself harboring and releasing a fugitive with whom he shares a secret bond. ``I had a kid come before me who had [murdered his father]. But I knew the father, he was an animal, and I let the kid go back to school.''

``I did something that was illegal,'' one judge confesses, going on to describe a case in which he deliberately exceeded the authority of the law, infuriating a defense attorney, because the judge thought a particular defendant was too dangerous.

Later, another judge responds to a discussion of Royal Thompson in ``Noon Wine,'' talking about ``how we come to realize that the people who are before us are not just pieces of meat or statistics. . . . Sometimes, we make decisions that go so far as leading people to take their own lives. . . . We deal with people that are so fragile all the time.''

Now and then, a judge will suddenly interject a highly personal note that corresponds to something he sees in the novels.

``I didn't have a brother,'' offers a round-faced judge with a dark, clipped moustache, prompted by the seemingly mystical connection between the captain and his secret sharer. ``But from the age of two to four I had an [imaginary] brother who lived in the kitchen cupboard. I would go off and talk to `Bobby' and resolve things, when life got especially complicated.'' WHERE can a judge go when life and his or her profession become complicated? With whom do they share their secrets?

``No one,'' answers one judge. ``I don't talk to my wife about these things. You make the hard choices yourself.''

``The district court is not a good spot to be indecisive,'' adds another. ``Right or wrong, you've got to call it.''

How much does a one-day intensive session like this help a judge deal with this ``lonely'' job?

In a later telephone interview, Judge Gordon A. Martin observes that the program is helpful in dealing with ``a certain aspect of judicial isolation.'' The judicial system as a whole ``is just not built for reflection.''

``I found it to be very useful,'' says Judge Patrick J. Hurley, also in a telephone interview after the seminar. ``It has continued to rummage around in my mind. Since last week, I have continued to reflect on some of the [issues] that came up. . . . I found it very useful to just look at myself as an individual who just happens to be in a particular line of work . . . what I'm about and what I'm doing.''

Though others also found the program useful, many judges said they had trouble relating their everyday lives to these fictional events.

But then the moderator asked what a judge does when confronted with a sanctuary movement case, if he thinks those being charged with harboring illegal alliens are in the right. Does he find a way to, in effect, violate the law?

``I don't like myself for saying it,'' one judge replies. ``But I'm sorry, I would have to go with the law, unless I was prepared to step down. Maybe, in the future, I might. . . . But, so far, my conscience is subordinate to my oath.''

``You go on the bench in your initial years with hopes and reflections and theories,'' muses a white-haired judge of lengthy tenure. ``Then you find, as the years go by, that these things get you in trouble.'' More and more, he adds, you just say in each case, ``that's the law, that's the law, that's the law.''

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