Taking the Bench: An Online Course for New General Jurisdiction Judges

By William J. Brunson

Taking the Bench

For many years, The National Judicial College (NJC) has heard from judges about the unavailability of education for judges who have been recently elected or appointed. These judges often take the bench without any formal education other than a briefing from their future court clerks. To remedy this gap in education, the NJC created an online, self-study course for newly elected or appointed general jurisdiction judges to educate them about their new role.

The course will take a judge between seven and nine hours to complete, and it includes readings, and interactive quizzes, videos and case studies. The NJC advertised the free course to chief justices, state court administrators and state judicial educators. The NJC created the course with funding from the State Justice Institute (SJI) and NJC’s Pillars of Justice Fund. The course consists of a Welcome to the Course, Modules 1-4, Acknowledgments, and Help/Resources.

Welcome to the Course provides introductory information about the course. It also includes a short video from one of the developers. The four modules are:

  1. Transition from the bar to the bench;
  2. In the courtroom: explores the role of a judge in the courtroom and what new judges can expect;
  3. Behind the scenes: explores the work that a judge does in chambers that even trial lawyers wouldn’t necessarily be aware of; and
  4. The judge, the court, the community: explores what judges should (and should not) do in relating to their communities.

Help/Resources provides contact information in the event that the participant has difficulty navigating the site. Finally, Acknowledgments contains the names and photos of the curriculum developers and the course architects.

After reviewing the materials in Module One (Transition from Bar to Bench) and taking the accompanying self-tests, judges should be able to:

  1. define “principled decision making”;
  2. differentiate between those community, political, business and financial activities that they are allowed to attend and those they are not;
  3. summarize their responsibilities for winding up a law practice (if relevant);
  4. describe those cases in which they must disqualify themselves or otherwise note on the record the associations they had with previous clients or organizations;
  5. recite the importance of a fair and impartial court system and the rationale behind judicial independence;
  6. identify the types of mental health issues faced by judges, new and experienced, and describe potential solutions;
  7. state the impact that isolation has on some judges and describe possible options for alleviating it; and
  8. define the positive aspects of being a judge.

After reviewing the materials and taking the self-tests in Module Two (In the Courtroom), the judges should be able to:

  1. describe their contempt powers with an understanding that contempt is only to be used as a last resort;
  2. define the elements for making a successful record for appellate purposes;
  3. outline ways to avoid wasting time at trial;
  4. identify best practices for providing access to self-represented litigants;
  5. explain the importance of “procedural fairness”; and
  6. summarize the role of judicial discretion and ways it can be exercised appropriately.

After reviewing the materials and taking the self-tests in Module Three (Behind the Scenes), the judges should be able to:

  1. define more clearly the judge’s appropriate role in encouraging settlements;
  2. describe the judge’s role in caseflow management;
  3. determine whether judges in their jurisdictions have a role in employment issues;
  4. identify the elements of effective judicial opinion writing;
  5. summarize the necessary components for an effective court interpreter program; and
  6. state the criteria that judges should consider in sentencing.

After reviewing the materials, videos and taking the self-tests in Module Four (The Judge, the Court, the Community), the judges should be able to:

  1. define when judges may speak publicly about the justice system without jeopardizing fairness in cases before them;
  2. describe methods for dealing with the media with the ultimate goal of educating the public about the courts;
  3.  identify ways to appropriately respond to criticism; and
  4. summarize methods for ensuring the safety of themselves and their families.

The NJC will make the course available on a monthly basis throughout 2012 to newly elected or appointed trial court judges. Judges will have five weeks to complete the course. If they are unable to do so, they may sign up again to complete it. Upon completion, judges will receive a tuition reduction on a course at the NJC and a small gift. The NJC has sent invitations to all chief justices with copies to the state court administrators and state judicial educators about the availability of the course.

The content is not specific to a state or jurisdiction. The course suggests to the judges that they should check their own state laws where relevant. [Much of the content addresses the practical aspects of being a judge.] While NJC designed the course for trial judges, limited jurisdiction judges would receive benefit from it and are welcome to take it. Likewise, judicial educators who wish to review the course are welcome to do so. They simply need to contact NJC’s registrar at 775.784.6747 or send an email to .

NJC will offer the course on a continuous basis so that judges who are appointed or elected can enter the course as soon as they wish. The course is available now for judges. NJC originally advertised its availability on June 22nd.

This is the first of two articles about NJC’s online course “Taking the Bench.” The second article will describe development of the course and is planned for the Fall 2012 Issue of the NASJE News.

William J. Brunson is director of special projects for The National Judicial College (NJC). In this position, he performs business development, conducts faculty development workshops, manages international programs, and oversees numerous grant projects primarily related to curriculum development for judges. Prior to this position, he served as the College’s academic director for more than three years and assistant academic director for more than four years. He also served as a program attorney for four years and as a program coordinator in 1992. He served as NASJE’s president in 2004-2005 and continues his involvement in the association. He is the co-author or co-editor of numerous curricula and publications. He has educated faculty both nationally and internationally on adult education principles and practice (also known as train-the-trainer) and curriculum development. Mr. Brunson joined the faculty of NJC in 1997.