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January 31, 2022 National Conference of Specialized Court Judges

NCSCJ Chair's Column

By Hon. Phinia Aten, Conyers, GA

Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may not remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand.” This Native American proverb speaks to the power of involution, an instance of transformative engagement leading back to a better self. The more I do, the more I learn and the better I become as a judicial leader. 

Involvement in the ABA need not be an all-consuming enterprise. It’s easy to join a committee and concentrate on a singular project or set other attainable goals. There are ongoing projects, topical events or legal causes promoted by the ABA that matter to you.

For me, the first major step was committing to do more than just pay my dues and traveling to the Midyear Meeting. It made a huge difference in my judicial competency and development. There were CLEs about the election process, which helped me win my third term in office, and substantive laws I applied daily. I strengthened ties with other judges over unique social opportunities and developed new professional connections to help fast track my grasp of the ABA as a powerful locus for jurisprudential advancements in America and beyond.

Chair Phinia Aten attends an NCSCJ Executive Committee Meeting over video conference

Chair Phinia Aten attends an NCSCJ Executive Committee Meeting over video conference

Courtesy of Hon. Phinia Aten

Each year I became more immersed, and my appreciation grows exponentially for the personal voice, perspective and, at times, influence, I can contribute to our national legal discourse on issues impacting the administration of justice vis-à-vis the ABA. As we approach the upcoming Bench and Bar Academy, the National Traffic Academy, and other in-person opportunities for continuing legal education and fellowship, mark this new year as the one you evolve through increased involvement in our organization.

A colleague recently reminded me that we are embarking on year three of the global coronavirus outbreak. As limited jurisdiction judges, with dynamic dockets that could never simply wait and be put on hold, we have been particularly nimble and innovative since the 2020 onset of governmental efforts to protect public health and limit the spread of this deadly virus. NCSCJ’s 2022 National Traffic Academy: Promoting Justice & Improving Outcomes in Denver on June 13-15 will serve as an excellent opportunity for us to share new best practices and trending issues arising from the pandemic. We will host an incredibly valuable program to judges presiding over traffic and impaired driving matters as well as other judges handling high-volume dockets, looking for proven methods to stave off backlogs, reduce recidivism, administer trauma-informed justice and much more. Special thanks to the Traffic Academy Co-Chairs, Judges Sonya Brown and Charles Price. If you are interested in presenting, we are currently accepting proposals. We are in this together, and sharing is caring. Excitedly, I will be in Denver for all of it and hoping you will be too.

I was tapped to speak on legal professionalism and ethics in the new normal era at the inaugural Bench and Bar Academy in Atlanta, from April 4-5, 2022. The Judicial Division hosts this event. The litigation process can be daunting, with many unforeseeable tactical and legal challenges, for both lawyers and judges to grapple. Open and honest dialogue between the two groups about ethical considerations, court expectations and discovery, ADR, trial and appellate practices will certainly be enriching for all participants. Registration is now open. Notably, our very own Judge Ernestine Gray chairs this event.

I am so thrilled about our programming for 2022, but I would be remiss if I did not recap some of our latest 2021 highlights as we finished the year strong. As the Tamil saying goes, “Learn about the future from looking at the past.” Our retrospective begins with the outstanding Veterans Day Wellness Wednesday Webinar moderated by Col. Linda Murnane and featuring panelists Col. Michael Lewis, the NCSCJ Military Courts Committee co-chair and U.S. Air Force appellate judge, Retired U.S. Army judge Col. Kirsten Brunson, and National Judicial College President Benes Z. Aldana, retired U.S. Coast Guard chief trial judge. Each of their personal accounts of service, sacrifice and impact were riveting. Judge Aldana reminded us that our civilian armed services is only possible because of the strong support of military spouses and other family members. Another significant military courts’ acme was the well-deserved induction of Col. Murnane in the Ohio Veterans Hall of Fame.

Judge Neil Axel, Judge Elizabeth Finn, and Judge Earl Penrod were featured speakers at the Arizona Governor's Office of Highway Safety Conference

Judge Neil Axel, Judge Elizabeth Finn, and Judge Earl Penrod were featured speakers at the Arizona Governor's Office of Highway Safety Conference

Courtesy of Hon. Elizabeth Finn

In November, I was honored to share with 30 legal and civic institutions in Indiana, including the Indiana State Bar Association and Indiana Supreme Court, the important allyship between the ABA, NCSCJ, Tribal Courts Council and Native American lawyers and judges. Throughout 2021, Indiana Supreme Court Justice and AJC Chair Steven David, along with Attorney Angka Hinshaw, moderated a legal continuing education program, “Open Conversations about Race and Racial Justice,” and invited diverse speakers to share their personal encounters with racial prejudice as well as their hopes, takeaways, breakthroughs and solutions for reconciliation, diversity, inclusion and equity. In celebration of Native American Heritage Month, we focused on historical and modern issues impacting tribal courts and communities. My esteemed co-panelists included Chief Judge James E. Lockemy of the South Carolina Court of Appeals and Danelle C. Crawford McKinney, a student specialist with the U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Education. Our no holds barred approach and frank discussion was well received. The CLE Director for the Indiana State Bar Association Kirstin Owens, who oversees the program and received attendee reviews, believes this comment perfectly summed up the responses: “The three presenters' stories were so interesting to hear. I was pleased to hear that they all believe that progress is being made. One of the best programs I've attended!” If you have interest in Native American legal issues, please contact me about participation on NCSCJ Tribal Courts Committee.

Bolivian wisdom says, “Tomorrow is as good as today” if you consistently apply yourself. Our entire executive committee is diligently involved in the responsible governance, positive difference and supportive roles that we undertake on your behalf. It is no small feat to serve your court and community well and still push for the progress of a nation. I eagerly look forward to seeing all our leadership and body members in Seattle to celebrate each of you and your involvement in the NCSCJ’s successes as quite fortunately there have been, and will be, an abundance to applaud. Former Saturday Night Live castmember Amy Poehler made a great case for involvement when she stated, “Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life."

Hon. Phinia Aten, Conyers, GA

Hon. Phinia Aten, Conyers, GA

2021-2022 NCSCJ Chair

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