April 03, 2020 National Conference of State Trial Judges

We Asked and You Answered!

By Hon. Christina Klineman, Indianapolis, IN and Hon. Mary Vasaly, Minneapolis, MN

In our last Judicial Record, we asked our Judges to ring in on whether they like the idea of “co-located” chambers. Here are some of the responses from conference members about where they stand on the issue:

Judge Carolyn Ellsworth, a judge in 8th Judicial District Court in Las Vegas, Nevada, writes about her experience with moving from “co-located” chambers to a freshly remodeled but more isolated chambers.  Before the remodel:

In 2002 the Regional Justice Center (RJC) replaced the old courthouse built in the 1950’s and had to be subsequently re-modeled to accommodate an ever-growing judiciary.   The RJC has traditional chambers behind each of the courtrooms.   But before the remodel, it was still too small with more judges than courtrooms and so the judges had to share courtrooms for a time.  When Judge Ellsworth was appointed she was housed in a building across the street from the RJC in “co-located” chambers and shared courtrooms with the judges who were already housed at the RJC.  Some of the RJC judges were less than civil about sharing their courtrooms.  She observed that the judges in co-located chambers were, by contrast quite collegial, talking frequently about issues in cases, assisting each other when necessary, and having joint pot-luck lunches on holidays.  Although the chambers were not “horrible,” she was happier there than in her now spacious chambers in the RJC.  Now, she sees or speaks to any of the three other judges on her floor once a month.  As for the other 50 judges, she almost never sees them except at the occasional conference.  In her opinion, the judge’s job is already very isolating and so advises other judges who may wish to remain in their bunkers:  “give the collegiate plan some careful consideration before dismissing it out of hand.”

Judge Keathan B. Frink, a circuit court judge for the seventeenth judicial circuit in Broward County, Florida agrees:  “Co-located. I think it helps build comradery and exchange ideas.”

Justice Paul Wilson, a Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court who spent six months in both settings recently, supports the co-located design.  His experience with the traditional design was that it felt like the four chambers were four separate silos, each containing a solitary judge.  The judges do see each other, especially judges on the same floor.  But the design requires more effort, and unplanned interactions are less frequent.  He observed that the Superior Court, with 82 judges state-wide, is remarkably collegial but the judges work at it.  For example, the judges go out to lunch together on Fridays, and in recent years have had a drop-in, bring-your-own lunch in the courthouse on Tuesday as well. 

With the co-located design, the judges spent a fair amount of time wandering the corridors, which made it easy to pop into the office of the judge next door, or down the corridor, or even on the other floor, when in need of advice or just a chat.  Even though the co-located design makes those random encounters more frequent, judges in that location also meet for lunch internally, in the judge’s library, every day, and often go out together on Friday. 

Judge Holly Abery-Wetstone, a Judge in the Superior Court in Connecticut reports that in her courthouse, the judges’ chambers are separate from the public spaces.  They are in the middle of the building and the chambers are off a hallway surrounding the courtrooms.  This set up gives the judges easy access to their courtrooms and close proximity to their colleagues for consultation and discussion. It is the best of both worlds

Thanks to those who submitted responses! We are always looking for new perspectives from our members. If you have an article or story you want to share with us about “civility” in our next JD Record, please contact either Judge Mary Vasaly or Judge Christina Klineman.