EARLY this summer, a senior group of law students at a Nevada college were discussing Shakespeare's ``The Merchant of Venice.'' They were testing principles of contract law against Shylock and his defenses. A core question: Need there be a printed rule of law, or should basic justice be applied in this situation?
This might seem a bizarre approach to legal education - and certainly to the classics.
But not for this group. These students were judges - currently sitting in trial courts across the United States - who had declared a recess to take a course on ``The Great Issues of Law and Literature'' at the National Judicial College (NJC) in Reno, Nev.
The highly prestigious, but little-heralded, NJC is a unique experiment in the training of judges. Now in its 25th year, it draws its students from the 29,000 black-robed jurists who preside over state and federal courtrooms across the nation.
More than 1,600 ``Your Honors'' pass through the college's portals each year, and about half as many sign up for off-campus offerings.
Unlike other academic institutions, the judicial college trains its enrollees for careers they have already launched. And also in contrast, it has no formal ``majors'' or degree requirements, football team, or homecoming dances.
But similar to other colleges, the NJC has a set curriculum, class hours, and homework. And like most of academia, it is in need of tuitions, private funding, and endowments to keep its program going.
William Lawless, dean of the college, discussed the contemporary needs of the US judiciary in an interview in Boston. His school for judges is addressing these needs by zeroing in on new legal questions raised by AIDS, genetic engineering, and toxic waste disposal.
Judge Lawless had formerly served as a judge on New York's second-highest court and held the posts of president of the Western State College of Law and dean of the University of Notre Dame Law School.
``It's our job to focus on new technological developments in society and then look at them from a legal position to see if we can prepare our judges who are to handle these situations,'' the NJC dean explains.
Courts are responding to these challenges, he says, pointing to the recent example of New York's administrative judges meeting with leading virologists to discuss AIDS-related legal questions.
Among them: Can a youngster go to public school and sit next to another youngster without having contaminated him? When is it proper for a school principal or director to take action? And when should the courts intervene and in what manner?
``The New York group came out with a list of 20 guidelines on what points trial judges should take into account in handling cases,'' Mr. Lawless says.
The NJC administrator stresses that the in-service training for judges in Reno does not tell a judge what to decide, but it offers guidance on how to issue rulings.
Some courses are designed for those who are brand new to the bench. Dean Lawless calls them ``boot training.'' They deal with judicial basics, such as disposal of motions, supervising the selection of a jury, and querying witnesses.
A course on ``judicial writing'' has become increasingly popular at Reno.
Lawless admits that until the 1960s, the quality of legal opinions was ``generally awful.'' He says many judicial rulings were written in a ponderous and repetitious manner, containing legal gobbledygook.
The college has addressed this problem by teaming up an authority on English composition with a law professor. ``We take a group of 25 judges and purposely give them 10 of the worst opinions you have ever seen in your life ... and get them to dissect them line by line and reorganize them,'' Lawless explains.
After discussion, the judges are given as a homework assignment the task of re-writing these rulings in a clear and concise manner.
The NJC is eager to expand its enrollment as well as its offerings. Last year, it served as host to 1,600 judges. With a larger course selection, the college expects to increase its annual enrollment to 2,200 by 1989.
More than 35 percent of a yearly operating budget of $4.2 million is derived from ``tuitions.'' Judges' educational expenses, room and board, and travel expenses come from the state coffers of participants. Grants and gifts from the American Bar Association, the MacArthur Foundation, and the state of Nevada augment these funds.
One of Lawless's major goals is to raise the college's present $6 million endowment to $10 million by 1991.
The NJC's dean points out that up to now states and the federal government have placed relatively low priorities on providing adequate funding for the training of judges.
Despite its fiscal woes, Lawless says he firmly believes that the US judicial system is ``the greatly single thing we have going for American democracy.'' And he is eager to export it.
Government officials from the People's Republic of China have visited the Nevada college to observe its procedures. And representatives from 20 other nations have also consulted with it.
Lawless will join a legal-medical expedition to the Soviet Union in October. ``There'll be 10 Soviets and 10 Americans,'' he explains. ``Lawyers, judges, medicos, and scientists. And we're going to explore the basis for a treaty or executive agreement concerning a mutual response to disaster situations like Chernobyl.''
This group will also visit Tashkent, the epicenter of most of the earthquakes in the Soviet Union, to discuss legal responses to this kind of natural phenomena. In 1989, a similar Soviet-American study project will examine at first hand California's earthquake faults ``to use those as models to see what kind of legal response we could have,'' Lawless says.