During August and September this year, as for several years before, the National Judicial College will be presenting Internet courses to judges from across America. Other members of the NJC faculty and I will discuss with student judges via computer and telephone how to bring more just results in our courts.
The faculty is comprised of volunteer judges and staff in Nevada, Colorado, Indiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. My experience over several years of judging and continuing judicial education by both Internet and brick and mortar classes has led me to the conclusion judges should not concentrate on techniques but rather systems of thought, i.e., legal theory. “How to” knowledge is helpful but “why to” understanding is vital.
Friedrich Karl von Savigny (1779 – 1861) was a German legal philosopher who believed a nation’s legal system arises from the volksgeist or national spirit of a people, that is, law is determined by the unique character of a nation. Or, as put by the American legal philosopher Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841 – 1935):
“The law embodies the story of a nation’s development through many centuries, and it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics.”
Common Law is a term used to mean judge made law, law developed through the courts, not the legislature or an executive such as a king.
America’s common law in the years before the Revolution of 1776 arose as an effort by American judges, lawyers and juries to curb the abuses of King George, III, and the British Parliament. The 1735 case of John Peter Zenger (1697 – 1746), a New York printer who published articles about the king and parliament, illustrates the national spirit of the Colonies. Zenger was charged by the Crown with seditious libel but a jury refused to find him guilty because what he published was true.
This American spirit of rebellion permeated the Declaration of Independence and is enshrined in our Constitution that was designed to keep government power in check and protect individual citizens.
Our volksgeist is our sense of a distrust of centralized power and the preservation of individual civil rights. America and her judges need constant reminders of where we came from and who we are. That’s what I plan to both study and teach.