Seminars make better judges

Ed Feulner

7/28/2006 12:01:00 AM - Ed Feulner

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.

The same is true of judicial seminars. A good one will expose participants to ideas and let them think through those ideas. Several years ago, the late Richard Arnold, then a judge on the Eighth Circuit, attended a seminar organized by the free-market Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, which is affiliated with Montana State University. He lauded the "intellectual quality" of the presentation and added, "it may never help me decide a specific case, but it will broaden the minds of all those that heard it, and that's more important."

Some opponents claim that judges might be influenced by these seminars to consider social science research and to better evaluate expert testimony. But weighing evidence and evaluating experts is what judges do. Don't they listen daily to lawyers on both sides who want to sway their opinion?

As the U.S. Judicial Conference Committee on Codes of Conduct says in its guidelines, "the education of judges in various academic disciplines serves the public interest. That a lecture or seminar may emphasize a particular viewpoint or school of thought does not in itself preclude a judge from attending. Judges are continually exposed to competing views and arguments and are trained to weigh them."

As a safety net, judges are required to disclose which seminars they attend. And, as Rehnquist once put it, "existing legal and ethics provisions quite properly restrict judges from accepting benefits from parties to litigation before them and provide for disqualification in any instance where a judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned."

We trust judges to make decisions on a wide variety of topics. Surely we can trust them to attend seminars without compromising their integrity. As is so often the case, the solution isn't more federal laws or a federal monopoly on education, just more common sense.