In the past four years, eight of our 16 judges in Duluth’s Sixth Judicial District have retired or left office, with several more departures looming on the not-too-distant horizon. Even allowing that judicial careers are relatively short because most of us are middle-aged when we start out, this level of turnover is historic. It reinforces the importance of proper training for new judges.
No judge comes to the bench with a perfect background for the job. In our district, judges usually hear every type of case, so it is all but guaranteed that a new judge will have at least a few subject areas where the learning curve is particularly steep. For me, topics like family law and probate law were all new because I had never practiced in those areas. My criminal law experience was trying courts-martial in the Navy, so even though I knew some of that substantive law, I still had to learn all of Minnesota’s procedural rules.
So how does a new judge learn the ropes? The short answer is “on the job.” (The long answer is they’re thrown into the deep end of the pool, from a very high platform, with an anchor tied to their feet. And the platform is on fire.)
We try to give every new judge at least a couple weeks to watch some of their fellow judges on different calendars, take notes, and ask questions. After that, however, they go on the bench and start hearing cases. Those first few calendars can be a painful, albeit necessary, learning experience. Most of the attorneys, court staff, and other participants are pretty patient and helpful. Those within the system all have a vested interest in getting the new judge up and running as quickly as possible.
After a few months on the job, all judges have to attend a week-long new judge orientation course. Affectionately referred to as “Baby Judge School,” the week includes an introduction to all the various subjects a district court judge might encounter. It is very practical training, most of it conducted by more experienced judges from around the state. The new judges leave with several useful (and voluminous) reference guides for the various subjects, plus a bunch of new contact numbers for questions.
There is also a follow-on trial skills training, where the new judges preside over a simulated jury trial with experienced judges playing the roles of the attorneys and witnesses. It is a place to try things out, make mistakes, and get suggestions on how to manage a courtroom in a safe environment. I will neither confirm nor deny that the experienced judges tend to have plenty of fun as the “actors,” but there is a lot of laughing over the course of the day.
Additionally, all judges must complete at least 45 hours of continuing judicial education every three years, so the learning never really stops for any of us.
Every new judge is also assigned at least one “mentor” judge. The mentor spends some time watching the new judge in action and providing feedback, and serves as a general point of contact for questions the new judge has along the way. The mentoring is mainly informal conversations, or even just letting the new judge vent a little, but it’s an important relationship.
Becoming a judge is a significant leap for even the most experienced attorneys, and often a very isolating one. The education and training requirements in the judicial branch are designed to make that transition as smooth as possible.
Dale Harris of Duluth is a judge in the Sixth Judicial District.