Last night I went to a class for temporary judges. There were over 200 people there; I even ran in to some lawyers I know from the practice, who I had no idea served as temporary judges.
The program works like this: after being certified and appointed by the Presiding Judge, a few days out of the month I would serve as a stand-in or supplemental judge to hear lesser matters — small claims, traffic, and even short-cause, non-jury civil trials. I would hear unlawful detainers (in non-legal English: “evictions”) except for the fact that my practice is pretty much exclusively representing landlords, and the canons of judicial ethics prevent me from serving as a temporary judge in the event that my current practice is one-sided.
The class itself was quite interesting and demonstrated to me that there are actually quite a lot of intellectual and ethical challenges that judges are faced with every day. Not the way you might think, either — at least according to the judge who taught the class, it’s more a matter of controlling your own mannerisms and statements, checking the urge to ask too many questions or develop one side or the other of a case, and segregating one’s judicial work from one’s advocacy work. It’s clearly a very different role to play within the system, one that is not well-understood by the public or even by other stakeholders within the legal system.
Periodically during the class, I had feelings of dread and intimidation. The ethical rules governing judges, and particularly temporary judges, are a lot more complex than those governing attorneys. Would I be able to keep all of this straight and govern myself appropriately? Would it even be possible for me to do this under the circumstances in which I’ve found myself — I am a lawyer in one of the more prominent local firms, after all; we handle a great deal of this community’s legal work. Avoiding not only present but potential future conflicts would be a matter of constant vigilance for me.
One of the more interesting ethical issues is when and how one can disclose that one serves as a temporary judge at all. There is a strong prohibition against using that status or designation for personal advantage — for instance, when pulled over for a traffic ticket, or advertising one’s qualifications as an attorney. The rules permit disclosure on an “individual” resume, but not on a public statement of one’s qualifications. You can say you serve as a temporary judge when describing your public service, but it’s not clear whether you can take a certificate of designation and put it on your office wall, because it may influence a potential client to hire you.
Of particular interest to me is the prohibition against discussing the specifics of cases, whether pending, past, or potential. Since I have a habit of writing about things that I do and think about from time to time, and then publishing them in a place where anyone can read them, I will need to look further in to how much detail I can get into in publishing “war stories,” particularly recent ones. Other judges have blogs, but they seem to focus on more academic kinds of issues (then again, the judges’ blogs that I read are of interest to me for their academic content, and I’ve not really looked for any other kind of judicial writing on the net). So that’s an issue I’ll need to research further; the answers are in the canons of judicial ethics but need to be fleshed out and considered.
But at other times, I was excited and eager to take up the challenge — it seems like a very comprehensive way of addressing my knowledge of the law, developing my appreciation and understanding of the system, and dealing with people. Clearly, it’s a new level of professional development. I very much want to continue to grow and take on new kinds of challenges in my profession; this is obviously an excellent opportunity to do that. And, it’s something that would make me a better lawyer, too — all the other lawyers I spoke with at the class have said that serving as temporary judges has been nothing but good for their skills and abilities as advocates.
So I’m going to press forward with getting certified as a temporary judge. It’s a bigger challenge than I thought it would be, and given that I’m also teaching on the same nights that most of the classes are being taught, it’s going to require some effort and commitment on my part to make it happen. But that’s what it’s all about, really.