In this classroom, every student’s name is ‘Judge’
Washington – They’re already being called “Your Honor” in courtrooms across the country, but this week some of America’s newest federal judges are students. They’re together for training on their new jobs, a workshop affectionately called “Baby Judges School.”
The training is the first to be held for judges appointed by President Donald Trump, but there will be more.
The new judges are learning everything from how to manage the hundreds of cases they’ll oversee to how to pick a jury, try civil and criminal cases, and take a guilty plea. And they’re attending sessions on ethics, on sentencing and on how to talk to victims, defendants and their families.
Officially, it’s called the “Phase 1 Orientation Seminar for Newly Appointed District Judges.” But few call it that.
“The goal of the baby judge program is to make sure that people have the fundamentals that they need to be able to do the job,” said Judge Jeremy Fogel, the director of the Federal Judicial Center, the judicial branch’s research and education agency and organizer of the training.
The training, which began in the late 1960s, isn’t mandatory, but the vast majority of new, federal trial-level judges choose to attend, and some appeals court judges do, too. Thirteen Trump-appointed judges with backgrounds ranging from work as prosecutors to lawyers in private practice are attending the training in Texas this week.
Lawmakers have confirmed 24 Trump nominees, and the president has 145 judicial vacancies to fill. His two-term predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, each appointed more than 300 judges out of a total of almost 900.
Fogel and Judge William E. Smith, one of two sitting federal judges serving as mentors during this week’s training, said the program is designed to present judges with options, not dictate how they should do their jobs.
“I think one thing that we want people to get out of this is a certain level of comfort with the basic tasks of the job, and there’s no one right style of being a federal court judge,” Smith said.
The Federal Judicial Center declined The Associated Press’ request to observe some of the training, saying the sessions are private to encourage the judges’ participation and candor. But organizers and judges involved in the program described the week in interviews.
In addition to lectures and discussion, the judges will spend time role-playing different scenarios. And for the first time a portion of the class will be dedicated exclusively to discussing workplace harassment.
Last year, prominent federal appeals court Judge Alex Kozinski retired following accusations of sexual misconduct, including that he had touched women inappropriately and asked law clerks to view pornography in his chambers. Judges will discuss that behavior, along with other scenarios such as whether it’s ever appropriate to tell a sexually explicit joke or ask a clerk to pick up dry cleaning.
The judges will also spend a half-day touring a federal prison. Previous groups have sometimes eaten a prison meal, and they always talk with prisoners about their experiences in the courtroom and as inmates.
“It sort of humanizes the people that you’re going to have to work with on your criminal docket and makes you really think hard of the human consequences of what you’re doing,” said Judge Robin S. Rosenbaum, a federal appeals court judge who attended Baby Judges School after becoming a district judge in 2012 and is speaking to the new judges this week.
Judges say they often make friends with their Baby Judges School classmates, who also become people they can call on for advice. Judge Benita Pearson, an Ohio judge who is also a mentor at this week’s training, said one of her former classmates is a Delaware judge who handles many complex intellectual property cases. Pearson said when she has an intellectual property question, calling her classmate “can usually save me an hour’s worth of work.”
The training isn’t the only one new judges will attend in their first year. A second training takes place in Washington and includes more advanced education sessions.
Ira Robbins, an American University professor who has been teaching one of those advanced sessions since 1982, said judges take more notes than students in his semester-long classes.
Said Robbins: “They’re going back to their offices and they have to use this.”
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