Court Staff Benefit from Law and Literature Course

by Lee Ann Barnhardt, Director of Education, North Dakota Supreme Court

Law and literature courses are common offerings in law schools across the country and are a regular feature in many judge trainings. In these instances, literature is used as a way of understanding the complex issues that are faced in the justice system. This serves a purpose, but there is also benefit in extending the study of literature to judicial staff beyond the bench.

Using literature as a teaching tool in court staff training provides a means for employees to achieve self-understanding and to see their work and their lives from a different point of view. Literature allows individuals to develop capacity for empathy and to achieve self-understanding. Viewing the world through the lens of a particular character allows individuals time to think and reflect on complex issues, something that the hectic pace of the court system rarely allows. Literature gives exposure to other ideologies and points of view and provides employees with a resource in resolving complex ethical and value-laden problems.

Literature lets staff think beyond the nuts and bolts of process and procedure. As Pat Murrell and William Carpenter wrote in their article, “Reconnecting with Values and Ethics,” Judges Journal (Spring 1999), “as individuals reach a level of technical proficiency and specialization in their work, they are no longer interested simply in more substantive content, but wish to engage with the larger issues and more universal concerns.”

It is also important for court staff to be comfortable with the storytelling format. We often hear that litigants in court just want to be heard. They want a chance to tell their story. Teaching with literature helps employees communicate clearly and precisely and helps them see the court system from another’s point of view. This is important in professions where the narrative of another’s story is so imperative to ensure the enactment of justice.

There are many legal topics found in literature including ethics, access to courts, the death penalty, delays in justice, and trial procedure. But there are also great works that touch on larger social issues such as diversity, gender fairness, mental illness, substance abuse, and violence. These and others impact the court system as a whole and lead to rich discussion on both professional and personal levels.

In North Dakota, we added a law and literature session to our juvenile court officer training about four years ago. The session has been well received. Topics covered include bullying, gun violence, substance abuse, cultural competency, and autism spectrum disorder. Both novels and short stories have been used. This year, we will add a session for our clerk of court training. The sessions not only increase the employee’s appreciation of literature, but also increase their understanding of human development and the human condition.

Looking at the world through the eyes of literary characters helps participants understand themselves and how their values and beliefs influence their work in the court system and ultimately justice for the litigants in our system. Literature provides a lens through which to look at the human condition and the role of values in the judiciary.