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April 03, 2020 National Conference of Federal Trial Judges

NCFTJ Chair's Column

By Hon. Leo I. Brisbois, Duluth, MN


Each of us must decide for ourselves what it means to be a good judge.  And, as a part of that individual determination, we will each incorporate aspects of the various value systems to which we have personally been exposed.  No doubt that when we all took the bench someone probably shared with us a copy of the article by U.S. District Judge Edward J. Devitt from Minnesota on various attributes of a good judge.  It's an article well worth reading and re-reading from time to time.  However, if I might be excused for any perceived impertinence, I'd like to share something from my personal, Ojibwe background which I also try to use as touchstones in performing my duties as a judge.

It is said that the Grandfathers (Mishomis), long ago, gave the Ojibwe people seven teachings to be pursued throughout their lives; by striving to be true to these seven teachings daily, the people would be aided in living their lives in a good way (mino-bimadiziwin).

Wisdom (Nbwaakaawin - wisdom is never fully achieved but it ought to be constantly pursued by being observant of all that is around us and allowing ourselves to learn):  as judges we can seek wisdom by informing ourselves about the law and the facts anew and keeping an open mind to the arguments presented for each case that comes before us.

Honesty (Gwekwaadiziwin - be honest with ourselves and recognize and accept who we are; do not seek to deceive ourselves or others; integrity) and Truth (Debwewin - apply faith and trust as we live life in a meticulous manner; understand the importance of both the journey and the destination; show honor and sincerity in all that we say and do):  as judges we can honor these teachings by recognizing our own limitations, avoid seeking shortcuts instead of doing the meticulous and hard work that each case deserves, and honor the robe entrusted to us by being honest and sincere in all we say and write.

Humility (Dbaadendiziwin - know that we are but a small part of a greater, more sacred creation; avoid arrogance and self-importance in favor of respecting your place among the people and praise the accomplishments of others):  while judges are very important and integral to maintaining societal stability through the rule of law, as individuals we can get swept up in believing the respect and deference expressed is reserved for us personally as opposed to the institution of the judiciary; there have been many who have come before us and there will be many who will come after us, and we have an obligation to respect the brief opportunity that each of us has been given to continue to nurture the legacy of justice and not diminish it by comporting ourselves in a selfish or arrogant manner.

Love (Zaagidwin - to know love is to know peace) and Respect (Mnaadendimowin - respect the balance and needs of others; honor all creation; do not be hurtful to yourself or others):  as judges we seek the peaceful resolution of civil disputes and the maintenance of public safety through due process of law, and the public's willingness to accept the results of the judicial process are dependent upon the respect that we directly show to everyone who participates therein whether they be parties, counsel, staff, jurors, witnesses, or observers.

Bravery (Aakwa'ode'ewin - the courage and strength to face one's fears and find the inner strength to defend what you believe in and what is right):  as judges it takes courage to make decisions that we believe are required by the law and the facts in each case but which may very well be highly unpopular with members of our community (including friends, family, and colleagues).

I like to think these seven teachings from my personal American Indian cultural heritage directly aid me in my daily efforts to be a good judge.  Take some time to reflect on how aspects of your own cultural heritage similarly provide a positive influence as you perform your judicial duties, and in doing so, it will reaffirm for us all just how our individual diverse perspectives serve to collectively strengthen the judiciary. 

Hon. Leo I. Brisbois

Hon. Leo I. Brisbois

2019-2020 NCFTJ Chair