Imagine a profession where you're expected to be an expert on criminal procedure, congressional redistricting, wetlands regulation, abortion and war—among other topics. Well, welcome to the world of a federal justice.
It's critical that judges understand the subjects they're deciding on. That's especially true for lower courts where, unlike the Supreme Court, judges don't have the power to decide which cases they'll hear. A lawyer who has spent decades in private practice may be appointed to the bench and find himself hearing complex cases on a variety of topics.
So how can judges stay on top of it all? One way is through educational seminars, such as those sponsored by the Federal Judicial Center, the research agency for the federal courts. But just as judges can't be experts in everything, the center can't either. That's where presentations sponsored by independent educational groups come in. Many excellent programs are sponsored by university institutes with nationally renowned scholars, none of whom have any cases before the courts.
They fill in the gaps, giving judges a chance to learn in depth about complicated matters that may come before their courts. As the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist said in a 2001 speech, "Seminars organized by law schools, bar associations and other private organizations are a valuable and necessary source of education in addition to that provided by the Federal Judicial Center."
Sadly, not everyone agrees.
A Washington-based pressure group called the Community Rights Counsel is working to ban independent seminars for judges. The group is funded by George Soros, and it opposes the application of sound science to judicial decision making, preferring complete deference to government control. The group supports a Senate bill that would ban judges from attending any event not paid for and approved by the federal government because it knows that would limit judges' educational opportunities. That's a bad idea.
After all, a judge doesn't stop learning when he finishes law school. Not even the best education can teach everything a student will ever need to know. However, a good education can teach one how to think, so the student will be able to approach new situations intelligently and make good decisions.