Each fall for the past several years I have helped teach an Internet course on continuing education to judges. The National Judicial College located in Reno, Nevada organizes the six-week curriculum and selects members of the NJC faculty to teach judges from across America and even some foreign countries. Each weekly segment is led by one faculty member who is assisted by five others. My assigned area is Court Management. The course is supervised by two full-time staff members of the college who operate the complexities of the technology required by the participation of judges by computer and telephone from numerous far-flung locations. Joseph Sawyer and Danielle Harris of the NJC are in charge of the course and tasked with the “cat-herding” job of running both those judges who take the classes and we judges who teach it.
When I think about continuing education for judges I get an image of mothers from New York to Hawaii sending off their little judges dressed in black robes and equipped with new gavels embossed with the admonition: “Don’t Hit Anyone”. Before I was an attorney and had to deal with judges and before I became a judge and had to deal with other judges I never gave a thought as to how judges learn to be judges. Until reality struck me, I just assumed judges knew what they were doing the moment they began to decide the fates of those who were brought to court by law and life. Oh, if that were so!
However, since that is definitely not so, we need places to teach judges how to judge the same as we need to teach electricians not to touch a hot 220 line. The National Judicial College where judges who have already made numerous errors can teach other judges how to avoid them is one such place. The NJC states its mission as “Pursuing education | innovation | advancing justice with the support of individuals and organizations dedicated to preserving and improving the rule of law”.
In the teaching of Court Management I suggest a judge first think about what purposes she/he wants their court to accomplish; what is the desired mission? If a pioneer were going from St. Louis to Colorado he might paint a slogan (mission statement) on his wagon, “Pike’s Peak or Bust!”. He really does not plan to live on Pike’s Peak but the mantra can help him stay focused when a wagon wheel comes off in Kansas.
About thirty years ago members of my staff gave a great deal of thought to our purposes as a court. We were not unhappy with the court’s direction back then but we wondered if there were better ways to manage the Posey Circuit Court. So my long-time Court Reporter, Katrina Mann, my Chief Probation Officer, Rodney Fetcher, another long-time Court Reporter, Kristie Hoffman, another long-time Probation Officer, Mark Funkhouser, my then Court Administrator, Sam Blankenship, and I brainstormed for weeks about what our goals should be and how we could accomplish them.
Short-term, mid-range and long-term elements of planning, strategy, operation, record keeping and innovation were considered. We sought and received important input from the attorneys and other office holders. What we concluded we wanted the Posey Circuit Court to do was to help make Posey County, Indiana a better place to live by helping to resolve instead of exacerbating problems between and among our citizens who needed the court’s services.
We slowly and incrementally instituted a system of resolving conflicts in which the most important actors are the people who are in conflict; say a divorcing couple with children. Our Mission Statement guides us but it is only a guide, not an immutable law. For now I will set forth the Mission Statement then in future columns discuss the “Devil in the Details” of how we actually strive to attain our goals.
Mission Statement of the Posey Circuit Court
The mission of the Posey Circuit Court is to help create a community in which individuals, families, and entities are encouraged and facilitated to resolve legal problems among themselves and to provide a forum in which legal issues that are not privately disposed of are fairly and efficiently decided according to applicable law in an atmosphere of mutual respect and positive innovation.
Over the years there has been a great deal of tweaking of our approach as new staff members have supported the main goals of conflict resolution and helping Posey County citizens repair their relationships. You are already aware this is a work in progress. Perhaps next week we can begin to flesh out the bones of our theory.