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Improving judicial professionalism starts in the classroom

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Indiana Lawyer Focus

Many of the proposals made in the 2009 white paper, “A New Way Forward,” which called for sweeping changes to the state’s judicial system, remain proposals. The recommendations to overhaul the court structure and to develop a uniform process for selecting judges continue to spark debate. But one piece has received approval and been implemented with little fanfare.

Since 2011, Indiana judges must complete 54 hours of continuing legal education every three years, up from the prior requirement of 36 hours. The nine-member Strategic Planning Committee of the Indiana Judicial Conference, which authored the white paper, had upped the credit limit because those on the bench should be held to a higher standard.

baker-john-g-mug Baker

“I don’t think you’d want to go to a doctor who graduated in 1965 and never ever went back to look at what’s happening in medical science today,” Indiana Court of Appeals Judge John Baker said. “All professions, law or medicine, have an obligation to maintain their education.”

Baker is a member of the strategic planning committee whose members were appointed by retired Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard and the Indiana Judicial Conference board of directors.

Increasing the CLE hours was a part of the education recommendation and the easiest to enact. The Judicial Conference board of directors voted unanimously to approve raising the requirement, and despite a little initial grumbling from some in the judiciary, most are expected to log the 54 hours with little trouble by the end of the three-year cycle on Dec. 31, 2013.

In fact, the committee believes most judges will surpass the 54 hours. At the end of the three-year period in 2010, a reported 65 percent of the bench had posted at least 60 hours.

Baker explained that for the judiciary, obtaining additional education is a matter of pride.

“Indiana judges want to be informed,” he said. “They want to learn to do their jobs better so they can serve the citizenry better.”

A higher standard

Prior to the increase in required CLE, judges had to register the same number of hours as attorneys.

The strategic planning committee felt increasing the mandatory minimum by 50 percent would not create a burden for judges. Each year, judicial officers are now required to complete at least 15 CLE hours. Of the total 54 hours, five hours must be ethics credits and no more than 18 hours can be from non-legal subjects.

The committee made other educational recommendations that have not yet been implemented. These include requiring all judges to graduate from the Indiana Judicial College within 10 years of taking a seat on the bench and mandating all judges attend training on judicial matters such as courtroom decorum and jury trial management.

Education was touted by the committee as the key to boosting the professionalism of the judiciary, improving the judicial system for all litigants and enhancing public confidence in the third branch.

willis Willis

Hamilton Superior Judge William Hughes reiterated Baker’s point that judges must meet higher expectations because of the status they hold in society. Hughes is currently chair of the Judicial Center’s education commission.

“Judges should be more accountable in a variety of ways,” he said. “We should have to have more hours because we sit on the bench.”

A former trial court judge, Baker knows keeping abreast of decisions handed down by the appellate division and new laws passed by the Legislature is hard to do when sitting in court all day.

Attending CLE seminars at judicial conferences enables judges to keep up-to-date on changes. They also gain new insight by talking to their colleagues from other parts of the state.

During the sessions, the judges tend to speak up and ask questions. They want interactive and interesting programs so much so that a strict lecture format may elicit some audible boos.

The CLE courses are valuable, said Henry Circuit Judge Mary Willis, a member of the strategic planning committee that developed the recommendations. New laws, changes in the law, trends in cases can all be part of the educational mix.

As a presenter, Willis has taught an entire CLE class on the history and evolution of judicial campaigns. She used the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a starting point for a discussion on ethics. She showed clips from the movie based on the book and highlighted cases from the Supreme Court of the United States.

“Judges want to be engaged and to contribute,” Willis said. “They want to learn.”•

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