A judge is a teacher of the law as well as a student of the law. This is a key theme when I campaign for my position as an elected trial court judge. As I explain to all who will listen, judges and lawyers do not live in ivory towers. Judges need to be involved in their communities and recognized as public servants. We must educate the public about what we do as well as “feel the pulse” of the public we serve.
This is also true in our roles as teachers of the law in our courtrooms. We are responsible for preparing “lesson plans” for the work we do before and on the bench. We must read all of the memoranda of law, briefs, cases, statutes, and other research in order to make informed decisions. We must listen to argument of all counsel and litigants to understand the issues before the court.
Outside of the courtroom, we take courses on cutting-edge issues and hence we become students of the law. We also learn to be better students of the law from judicial outreach projects and lessons we prepare to teach the people we serve at local Kiwanis International or Lions Club International events. The public is thirsty to hear from “real” judges. A question commonly asked by a broad spectrum of individuals in our communities from children to senior citizens is: “Are you like Judge Judy?” Television shows are meant to be entertaining, not to be educational lessons on the judiciary. There is much work to be done.
In schools, civics lessons are not a basic course nowadays, so our work in judicial outreach becomes even more important. When I am asked to speak at various clubs and events, I include examples of cases I have presided over to show how the three branches of government work together as a check and balance on each other. The independence of the judiciary throughout the United States is a concept foreign to many of our own citizens, so we can fulfill a vital role by explaining and demonstrating the importance of fairness. Those in the audience are interested in hearing about the meaning of stare decisis, the keystone to our judicial process, long valued as the doctrine of precedent.
Various resources are available to make judicial concepts more exciting to our audiences. For instance, the Judicial Education Department of the Ohio Supreme Court produced a recent video on how the court system works. This video displays many judicial steps and concepts in an exciting, upbeat, and modern educational format to garner the attention of its viewers. See http://www.ohiochannel.org/video/how-does-ohios-court-system-work.
When we do judicial outreach by creating task forces with various community stakeholders, we are learning from each other to achieve a certain goal. In Erie, Pennsylvania, I facilitate the Truancy Task Force with over 80 community leaders who are interested in educating each other on maintaining student attendance. Committed leaders represent all aspects of the process from school superintendents, teachers, parents, student attendance officers, judges, prosecutors, defense counsel, juvenile probation officers and community resource officers, social workers, and many more. Having students attend school is vital for the student as well as critical to the health, welfare, and safety of the entire community in preventing crime of truant students. Making sure students attend school is essential to our future.
Structuring such efforts to succeed also involves judges as students. I learned how to establish such a truancy task force from my attendance at seminars sponsored by the National Conference of State Trial Judges and the Judicial Division of the American Bar Association meetings. Facilitating a Domestic Violence Task Force is another judicial outreach task force I am proud of that includes defense lawyers, prosecutors, law enforcement, judges, social workers, court employees, and juvenile and adult probation workers. All of these stakeholders work together in our task force for the betterment of our community by bringing various perspectives to the table to ensure the Protection from Abuse process is working effectively.
Lawyers also play a critical role in these efforts. Lawyers are uniquely qualified to help educate all about the judiciary, what it is and does, and, just as importantly, what it is not. Encouraging lawyers to be active in outreach efforts is crucial in educating the public. In Erie, Pennsylvania, we have an Attorneys and Kids Together Program initiated by our local bankruptcy court judge, the Honorable Thomas P. Agresti. This bar program has judges and lawyers doing educational activities with homeless students who enjoy our mentoring. Together we visit museums and zoos, paint clay objects, and shop for sneakers and school clothes with the students. We also provide students with money to purchase prom tickets, yearbooks, school rings, and dresses to tuxes. Helping kids be kids. Along the way, understanding the needs of our community members is extremely helpful for us as lawyers and judges.
This themed edition of The Judges’ Journal offers many tips and ideas to encourage us to continue judicial outreach and produce more community projects for the betterment of our communities and ourselves, personally and professionally. Hopefully, you will be inspired to not only be competent teachers of the law but also to be more involved in your communities as learned students of the law for the people we serve.