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May 01, 2013 Waymaker

Judge Bill Dressel: An Insightful Educator

By Peter M. Koelling

Judge Bill Dressel has been president of the National Judicial College (NJC or “the College”) in Reno, Nevada, since 2000. He is set to step down from that role at the end of this year. Prior to taking on the leadership of the college, Judge Dressel was a general jurisdiction trial judge in Ft. Collins, Colorado, for more than 22 years. He has been an active member of the ABA and the Judicial Division throughout his legal and judicial careers. He was the principal author of the ABA’s Trial Management Standards adopted by the House of Delegates in 1992. He is a graduate of the University of Denver School of Law and Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa.

Bill, you have been president of the NJC since 2000. And for 22 years before you were a district court judge in Colorado. I want to ask about your career before you became a judge. What was your legal experience prior to taking the bench?

I was one of those very fortunate law students. I really got introduced to the practice of law by clerking for law firms and the Metropolitan Legal Aid. I worked with their investigator coordinating case reports. It was a key experience because he really told me what was needed to be able to prepare the facts of a case.

That is really a unique starting point. So few law students get the opportunity to see how to build a case, the factual basis for a case, and the evidence that you need to put it together. Did you get any courtroom experience as part of your legal education?

Yes, because I was in the proverbial right place at the right time. In my second year during Christmas break, I was staffing the Metropolitan Legal Aid office in Denver and I got this call. It was a county court judge, and he needed a lawyer or a senior law student, but there was no one in the office. He told me to get over to the court as I was going to learn to try a case. When I got to the courthouse, they had this docket of prostitution cases as there had just been a big sweep. I said, “Judge, I’ve never tried a case.” He said, “The detective will show you how. Now go ahead and try your first one.” I spent a week in county court.

What an experience. Did you feel you were ready to handle a case once you became a lawyer?

Not really. I was sworn in early because a case I had prepared was going to trial and the firm’s lawyer assigned to the case was still in another trial. I had one of the lawyers in the firm help me with jury selection and sit with me until he had to go to another case. More importantly, after that I got to work on a lot of trials as second chair. One major trial about six months later, the lead attorney turned to me and said, “we need a change in pace. You prepped the next witness, so question him.” I had about maybe 10 questions to ask. When I got up to ask my first question, my voice went really high and squeaky and I nearly lost my voice. The whole courtroom cracked up. The senior partner said it was the levity he was looking for. It is said that it’s in failures when you learn. That was a real learning experience for me.

Back in the sixties and early seventies you tried a lot of cases, unlike now where the focus is more on settlement. About how many cases do you think that you tried?

In 12-plus years, I probably tried over 100 cases in every level of court in the state of Colorado.

When did you become a judge?

July 1, 1978. And I should mention that while I had extensive trial experience and knew my way around courts, I was about as unprepared as anyone for that job; I kid you not. I had to learn a lot of processes and procedures. Also, I had to pick up on a whole new point of view. It was really a challenge. I guess I knew even back then that the idea of taking over a docket from day one is ridiculous. It was baptism by fire, sink or swim.

I know that you received some mentoring from the judge you replaced prior to becoming a judge, but did you receive any other training once you got on the bench?

Not until I went to a state judicial conference in the fall of 1978. Then in 1979, about 10 months after I went on the bench, I was sent to the NJC. I went with several other Colorado trial judges who had all been on the bench for less than a year. It was a real eye opener for all of us, this experience of sitting down with judges from around the country and being able to talk about the judicial profession, our experiences, concerns, challenges, etc.

I think it is very helpful to be able to talk with other judges and to be able to see what other states are doing across the country.

Agreed, and I am not saying this because I’m talking to you, but Judge Fullerton of Denver, who had been a liaison to the ABA, said, “Hey, Bill, you need to get involved in the ABA Judicial Division.” My experience with the ABA as a lawyer I thought made me a better lawyer. And so as a judge, I became very active in the Judicial Division and I was fortunate to later become chair of the National Conference of State Trial Judges (NCSTJ). The Conference and entire Judicial Division worked on numerous justice improvement initiatives, but I really enjoyed working on court delay standards, appellate standards, and trial management standards. I also enjoyed being a part of the subcommittee rewriting the Model Code of Judicial Conduct. I had a rich experience at the ABA being able to work on these projects as judicial systems nationally were changing. It gave me an opportunity to compare other systems; to hear other judges,’ lawyers,’ and court administrators’ experiences; to share mine; and to talk about case management, trial management, and a variety of other subjects.

Did you get involved in court structure and governance issues?

Yes, doing consulting nationally and in Colorado everyone wanted to improve the administration of justice. The judges, staff, and community were able to work together cooperatively in Larimer County, resulting in some remarkable case-processing and program improvements. Colorado encouraged the districts to exert control over its caseloads. States were just starting to consider consolidation of some control in the office of the state court administrator, which I think was needed in a number of areas. I had the opportunity to talk with Ed McConnell as the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) was looking at unified court systems with control in the administrative office of the courts. There remained the issue of the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) interacting and sharing responsibility with the local courts. I think that is a discussion that needs to occur today. Every state needs to take a look at what operations local courts should be responsible for and where the chief justice and the AOC have authority.

What do you think is the proper balance? Because there are different ideas out there, and the NCSC really does encourage a top-down hierarchal structure.

I think there needs to be a unified structure, but it has to recognize that change and improvement often occur at the local level. Ed McConnell and I wrote an article for the 50th anniversary of the NCSTJ: “Looking Forward Through the Rearview Mirror.” He and I talked about how, in this hierarchal structure, you need to make sure there is a mechanism in place for local courts to experiment. I think the role of the Supreme Court is to give guidance, set policy and standards, review/monitor what local courts are doing, and hold the local court accountable. For instance, if you didn’t have local court freedom to experiment, there wouldn’t be drug courts today.

I remember as a trial court judge going to the chief justice because I wanted to establish a juvenile court. At that time, Denver had an adult drug court, but I felt we were missing the boat. People were saying, “let’s create all these adult drug courts,” and I as well as others were saying, “Whoa, stop! Where do you think the people in adult drug courts are coming from?” The defendants in the drug courts were mostly in the 18-to-26 age range, so we wanted to start with the juveniles first in Ft. Collins. I said to the chief justice, “here is what we are proposing to do,” and he said, “fine; just keep us advised.” We coordinated our efforts with the state head of probation services and the court was very effective.

How did you end up becoming president of the NJC and why did you want to take on that role?

I should say, “sometimes I wonder why,” but that’s not true. I was on the bench 20 years and in my fifties. I knew that the responsibilities/work were weighing on me and that while I wanted to continue working, I should look for something else to do. I was given the advice to submit my resignation and that opportunities would open up. I was midway through my 22nd year on the bench and I took that advice and resigned and several opportunities did indeed arise. The Board of Trustees of NJC had hired a new president who was there about a year about the time I left the bench. He told the Board that he was leaving to start a new law school in Florida and the Board didn’t want to go through another formal search so soon. So they interviewed a small group of candidates including me and thankfully I was offered the job. It was a good fit for me because of my having worked with judges all across the country and my belief in the importance of judicial education. I remembered the impact that the Judicial College made in my life as a new judge and I thought if I could be a part of what they do for judges, I couldn’t do anything better than that.

Where was the College at that time? What was its role nationally?

The Judicial College was evolving, sort of thinking about what its role should be in judicial education. In addition to the courses it offered, it had helped states set up their own colleges and education programs. The Board agreed that it was time to explore what the future should look like. It was appealing to be a part of trying to define what this wonderful institution should become. It was a challenge and gave all of us at NJC the opportunity to build on a terrific past while creating a future.

Things are still changing today. What do you think the difference is between the lawyers who are being appointed to the bench today and those who were appointed 20 years ago or 35 years ago when you were appointed? How are judges different?

When I became a judge, I was in my mid-thirties, which was rare, but I did have the experience of working in a law firm that had a vigorous trial practice. I walked into my first judicial conference in the fall of 1978 and the judges were mostly males in their mid-fifties to late sixties who mostly came out of a law practice. There were very few minorities. In the back of the room, there was a table with six or seven women. That was all the women judges there were in the state of Colorado at that time. I sat down with them. I said, “I guess we are the odd folks out,” and they said, “Yep, we are!” But with an increase in women and minorities going to law school, it soon changed. Now there are few new judges in their late fifties or early sixties coming to the bench. Judges are getting younger and very diverse, which is good because they are bright and enthusiastic, but the downside is they don’t have the breadth of experience seen with an older new judge.

What was the value of having those older judges?

I could remember sitting at the conference with these judges and I learned a lot about the judicial profession but also life. The judges had been in the legislature. They had been in private practice. They had seen a lot of issues from different perspectives and engaged in a variety of experiences. The rich life experiences they have brought to the decision-making process made them better. They were very open to other points of view because they had such diverse experiences.

Today we have seen people come to the Judicial College who have never tried a case. Some have never been in a courtroom as they came out of a transactional practice. That presents some challenges but not a disqualifier. We are going to be getting younger people who are bright and want to do the job. We need to be able to figure out how to give them the tools and the time to develop into a more than competent judge. We want them to go beyond competent and to develop exemplary skills. It is also important that they think of themselves as a part of the institution. Judges may be assigned cases individually, but they need to come together as they administer justice in the courthouse, district, or circuit. Judges need to realize they are a part of something greater and that there is a responsibility to the institution and the community.

Do you think that it is going to continue to change in that way? Do you think we are going to get younger and more diverse in the future?

Yes, and while we are going to be challenged, change is good and there are benefits. We need to continue to encourage lawyers to think of the judiciary as a valuable and fulfilling career. The legal profession really needs to step back and look at how it can encourage the best and the brightest to look at this as a professional choice. For some it’s economics as they had built a good practice and it’s difficult to leave the financial stability to become a judge. There is a lot of anguish over should I leave the known. Judges don’t, nor will they ever, make as much as some private practitioners, but the judiciary offers for the right person many rewards. We need to put the idea of becoming a judge in people’s minds early on in their practice to attract those who will flourish. I remember one time I was in this district that shall remain nameless and I complained about the judge—yes, lawyers do complain. The attorney on the other side said, “That’s why you should become a judge. Think about it. You will make a good judge.” It kind of struck a positive chord and stayed with me.

Let me ask you this. What do you think that judges need to know to be effective that we are really not teaching right now?

They need to understand this world of constant decision making. As a lawyer, you are representing a client and while you want that client to be realistic about the case, you are still looking at the case from the client’s point of view. Being an advocate is something that should not carry over on to the bench and being of an open mind—fair and impartial in all you do—is really essential. We need to realize it is a profession of making decisions that impact people’s lives in many ways. We lost the concept that perhaps it’s an art where a judge could hear something and say, “give me a minute,” then pull his or her thoughts together and give an oral decision, which is appropriate in many, many cases. We have become too legalistic in our language. We need to have decisions the party can understand. We need to have the ability to make decisions quickly, in a manner that the people accept, and believe that a neutral tribunal made the decision in their case. Judges need to interact with clients and, in many cases, directly ask them if they understand what has been decided. Judges need to incorporate the concepts of procedural fairness into all they do.

I believe it is time to step back and really take a look at the judicial profession like the ABA did back in 1961 and ’62. They went around the country and asked this question: “Do judges need education and, if so, what should it be?” That is what we hope the NJC 50th Anniversary Symposium in the fall of 2013 is going to do—start an interactive conversation to engage folks from across the justice spectrum to really think about the purpose/goals of judicial education and possibly reinvent how a person becomes a judge. This is going to be a real critical challenge to all members of the legal profession. We need to look at how to give judges the experience and skills they need to be a more-than-competent judge and the ongoing education needed throughout their career. We need to get judges committed to becoming lifelong learners and to give them challenging educational experience.

So how would you change that? How would you change judicial education? I know you have to deal with reality and finances, but, just looking at it objectively, what would you change in terms of judicial education?

There needs to be pre-bench education like what NJC has tried to do in an online 24/7 introduction to the judicial profession. I would like to see the ABA work with state bar associations and perhaps the NJC to encourage lawyers who might think they want to be a judge to engage in a pre-bench program to see if this is a career for them. Second, I think there needs to be a time when new judges obtain on-the-job experience, perhaps by shadowing a judge and working with a trained mentor judge/coach. New judges need to spend some time to see how a court and a court system are run. Now, could this be done? Yes, there are a variety of ways, but such programs would take time and resources. There are, in many states, rich reserves of talent in senior judges to mentor and to work with the new judges. But the senior judge would need training. Third, you also need to get new judges experience; you need to have an educational model where you can do a mock trial and give them less complicated cases to preside over—create a kind of clinical experience. Fourth, give lawyers the opportunity to come in pro-tem, to handle cases. These are usually smaller cases and maybe not a trial but some part of it. I think this type of introduction to judging—building on the pro-tem concept or clinical experience pre-bench coupled with easing a new judge into the job and giving feedback on how they are doing—would be invaluable. Hopefully, there will be different approaches in different states, experimenting and creating different ways that can be used to improve the judicial experience and the profession.