Judicial Education in the Trial Court

Issue November/December 2017 By Chief Justices Paula M. Carey, Judith C. Cutler, Paul C. Dawley, Judith Fabricant, Amy L. Nechtem, Roberto Ronquillo, Jr., Angela M. Ordoñez and Timothy F. Sullivan

As the chief justices of the Trial Court and its seven departments, among our highest priorities is to encourage outstanding lawyers from diverse professional and personal backgrounds to apply for appointment to the bench. In the course of that effort, we sometimes hear potential applicants question whether they are qualified, because their experience does not include all aspects of the work of any Trial Court department. We respond that each department’s work is so varied that virtually no new judge brings experience with all of it; all new judges learn on the job, as do all judges throughout their careers.

That raises the question of what training we provide. The answer is: a lot. Each department, in conjunction with the Trial Court Judicial Institute, has a carefully designed two-year curriculum for new judges, along with regularly scheduled educational conferences, seminars, and peer observation for all judges at all stages of their careers. 

Each Trial Court department conducts educational conferences for all its judges at least once each year, some departments twice or three times each year, with presentations by judges and outside experts in fields of particular relevance to the work of that department. Department conferences are geared toward increasing substantive knowledge, sharpening judicial skills, and heightening awareness of developing legal issues; conferences also provide judges with an opportunity to share experience and ideas informally, and to develop collegial relationships.

Judges at all levels of experience in all departments also attend a wide variety of educational programs offered by the Trial Court Judicial Institute, the Flaschner Judicial Institute, MCLE, the Social Law Library, bar associations, law schools, and national judicial education organizations. Each department encourages judges at all levels of experience to participate in peer observation on a regular basis. In addition, and perhaps most important, the judges of each department provide constant informal consultation, mentorship, and support for each other throughout our service.

Training for new Trial Court judges has three principal components: mentorship, orientation, and classroom-type presentations. The mentorship component follows uniform Trial Court policies, and receives support from the Trial Court Judicial Institute. The chief justice of the new judge’s department assigns a trained mentor-judge as soon as possible after confirmation, before the new judge comes on board; the chief selects the mentor based on factors that include the new judge’s and the mentor’s practice background. The chief meets with the new judge and the mentor at the outset to set the expectations for the relationship, then at scheduled intervals over the next two years to review progress. The chief encourages the two to confer at least weekly, and to observe each other in the courtroom. Each chief also encourages the mentor and new judge to consult on aspects of the work of particular relevance in that department. In the Superior Court, for example, the chief encourages the new judge to share early draft decisions with the mentor, so as to receive feedback on writing style and tone in the new judicial role. Sometime in the latter part of the first year, each new Trial Court judge is videotaped on the bench, and the mentor and new judge watch and discuss the recording together.

Orientation, which occurs in the first few weeks after the new judge begins, varies by department. New District Court judges enjoy a four-week orientation program that is individually crafted by a “faculty coordinator,” a member of the Education Committee.  During the four weeks, the new judge travels to a number of different courts of varying sizes and populations around the state, both urban and rural, and sits with a multitude of experienced judges. The program includes several subject-specific days (e.g., abuse prevention, sentencing, mental health, probation) to ensure that the new judge becomes familiar with the essentials of the daily business of the District Court. Although the format is fairly standard, the new judge may request additional emphasis on a particular aspect of the law if his or her background did not include sufficient exposure to the topic. The orientation also includes meetings with key court and administrative personnel, in order to go over the role of the Clerk-Magistrate, the Chief Probation Officer and the regional office. If, at the end of orientation, the new judge feels that he or she still needs further instruction in a particular subject, the faculty coordinator or the judge’s mentor will arrange it.

In the Superior Court, orientation lasts two weeks and takes place in Suffolk County, where the Court has the largest number of civil and criminal sessions for the new judge to observe, and where the administrative office is based. A designated “faculty coordinator” organizes an individualized schedule of observation and discussions tailored to the new judge’s background and past experience, guided by a checklist of types of proceedings and topics to which each new judge should be exposed. A judge with a civil background spends much of the orientation period observing in criminal sessions and discussing criminal topics with experienced judges, while a judge with a criminal background does the opposite. The orientation also includes meetings with key administrative staff to discuss court policies, resources, and the roles of various personnel. At the end of the orientation, the new judge and the chief review the checklist to identify any gaps in the matters covered, and formulate a plan to fill gaps over the next weeks or months in the location of the judge’s first sitting.

The Probate and Family Court Chief Justice meets with the new judge to plan an individualized orientation process in light of the new judge’s background and particular needs. The new judge then begins a ten-day orientation period, which includes traveling throughout the Commonwealth to observe in the majority of the fourteen Probate and Family Court divisions. The new judge meets the judges in each location, and sits with each judge to observe how various case types are handled. During the orientation period each new judge also receives a set of training tutorials, conducted by judges or administrative staff, or in some instances by video recording, on a list of topics in areas of substantive law and procedure, as well as administrative matters. The orientation also includes meetings with key administrative staff to discuss court policies, resources, and the roles of various personnel throughout the Trial Court.

In the Juvenile Court, upon the appointment of a new judge, the Chief Justice selects three judges, in addition to the mentor, with whom the judge will second-seat for a four week period of training and observation. The selection of the training judges is based upon the new judge’s prior legal practice and experience. Each newly appointed judge is also assigned to spend some time in the clerk’s office and the probation department of his or her court of appointment, to gain a better understanding of how those offices function. Each new judge also meets with administrative staff to learn about administrative practices, policies, and resources, and the roles of administrative personnel. The new judge is also encouraged to tour a DYS facility, so as to gain a better appreciation of how the facility operates and the environment in which children are placed.

In the Boston Municipal Court (BMC), the new judge meets with the Chief Justice and a member of the department’s New Judge Education Committee to determine the focus of the initial training, taking into consideration the new judge’s prior legal experience. The new judge is then assigned to observe other BMC judges in all divisions of the BMC. This observation and training period usually takes four weeks to complete. Each new judge also spends one day meeting with the Security Department, the Office of Court Interpreter Services and the BMC Administrative Staff, where the new judge learns about and is exposed to administrative policies and responsibilities. Further, on-going training is also available to a new judge as needed and when requested.

A new judge of the Housing Court travels during the first several weeks to several of the eighteen different locations where the Housing Court conducts sessions, to observe veteran judges handling a broad range of procedural and substantive matters in civil and criminal sessions. The new judge also meets with the Chief Justice and Deputy Court Administrator to learn about the Court’s policies and procedures.

In the Land Court, orientation begins with a meeting between the new judge and the Chief Justice, to review Land Court practices, procedures, and expectations, and to outline the orientation program, which the new judge’s assigned mentor supervises. After meeting all six other judges and the Administrative Office staff, the new judge spends a two week period observing each of the other judges preside over various events, including case management conferences, pretrial conferences, status conferences, motion hearings and trials.

Classroom-type sessions for new judges include programs provided by the Trial Court Judicial Institute as well as more targeted programs provided by individual court departments for their own new judges. All new Trial Court judges attend the Judicial Institute’s annual two-day “Essentials for New Judges” program, which covers topics including security, working with interpreters, judicial writing, contempt, selected evidence issues, substance use issues, race and implicit bias, and working with self-represented litigants. In addition, all new judges attend annual full-day Judicial Institute programs on judicial ethics, evidence, domestic violence, mental health, and the Judicial Response System. The larger departments supplement these programs with their own sessions on areas of substantive law and procedure of particular importance to their work.

The District Court holds a “bring-back session” once or twice each year for all new judges who have been on the bench for several months. The passage of time after the end of orientation and prior to the bring-back ensures that each of the new judges will have a number of questions. The new judges spend the day with the Education Committee, whose members serve as faculty for the session, discussing any and all questions that the new judges wish to raise. Questions may concern black-letter law, ethics, courtroom management, procedural issues, or tips for handling particular situations. The format allows for an easygoing exchange in a relaxed setting.

The Superior Court, at intervals of about one to two years depending on the number of new judges, presents an intensive three-day program known as “New Judge School,” with presentations from experienced judges, selected staff, and outside speakers on substantive and procedural topics that bear directly on the day to day work of Superior Court judges. Also, in conjunction with the Flaschner Judicial Institute, each year a committee of Superior Court judges plans a series of evening seminars geared to the needs of new Superior Court judges, open to all Superior Court judges and to judges of other Trial Court departments when the topic is relevant to their work.

The District Court conducts quarterly educational programs in each region, while the Boston Municipal Court (BMC) schedules regular brown bag lunch meetings of judges to address relevant and timely legal topics. The Probate and Family Court provides specialized programs for its judges throughout the year, and every third year its judges are invited to attend a two-day conference known as the Freedman Retreat, sponsored by the Flaschner Judicial Institute, to discuss new, novel, complex, troubling, or interesting issues they face on the bench.

The training programs the Trial Court and its departments provide for new judges, and for all judges, reflect a substantial commitment of time, energy, and effort from many experienced judges and staff. We make this commitment because we accept collective responsibility for the quality of our service to the public. Our new judges express their strong appreciation, and make the same commitment to future new colleagues. For lawyers who may be considering applying for appointment to the bench, you can rest assured that, if your application is successful, whatever your background, you will find your new colleagues ready to help you make a successful transition, and develop both the substantive knowledge and judicial skills you will need throughout your career.

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