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Becoming a Judge: The New Orientation Program


Becoming a Judge: The New Orientation Program

By: Chief Justice Anne M. Burke and Special Guest Columnist Justice Mary Jane Theis

April 26, 2021

Happy Spring! Was it really just a little more than a year ago that COVID appeared and completely took over our lives? So much has changed that I imagine few of us can even recall what life was like before the pandemic. Before Covid, no one had heard of Zoom and other online platforms that have become so much a part of our lives now.

Yet time moves on, and now, as the weather warms and flowers begin to bloom, the renewal of the world around us gives us fresh hope for a brighter future. As always, the Court is grateful to the entire legal community for its flexibility, creativity, and dedication. All of you have played an important role in maintaining access to justice during these difficult times.

This month, once again, it is my pleasure to connect with the judicial system through the Illinois Courts Connect newsletter. As is my custom, I have invited a guest to contribute a column to this newsletter. This month, my guest columnist is my colleague, Justice Mary Jane Theis.

Justice Theis began her judicial career in 1983 when she was appointed an Associate Judge in the Circuit Court of Cook County. Since then, she has served at every level of the Judiciary in this State. While a member of the Appellate Court, First District, she was Chair of both the Committee on Judicial Education and the Committee on Judicial Conduct of the Illinois Judicial Conference. In 2010, Justice Theis was appointed to the Supreme Court and later elected to the position. Justice Theis serves as Court Liaison to the Legislative Committee, the Judicial Mentor Committee, the Commission on Professionalism, and the Illinois Judicial College. She also serves as Chair of the Illinois Courts Commission. Today she shares some of her thoughts on being a judge and how our expanded and remodeled New Judge Orientation program can benefit judges, especially those embarking on their judicial career. Thank you, Justice Theis.

Becoming a Judge: The New Judge Orientation Program
By Justice Mary Jane Theis
Becoming a new judge is a great honor. It is the highpoint of one’s legal career, a lifelong dream come true, the culmination of years of hard work. It is also terrifying.

Suddenly, your professional responsibilities change dramatically, raising many new ethical challenges. Can you still socialize with lawyers who have cases in your courtroom? Can you continue to serve on the board of your favorite charity? What if the organization wants to honor you at the annual fundraiser? Now everyone seems to think your jokes are very, very funny. Is it appropriate for you to be so clever from the bench? How do these new ethical rules impact your spouse? Your children?

Recently, Judge Freddrenna Lyle, a member of the Committee on Judicial Education, described her experience as a new judge. She recalled,

“…that moment when a lawyer appears before you and you realize that he or she knows more about the subject matter than you. Contrary to the public perception that the wearing of the robe means the wearer knows everything, we don’t. In my case, I did criminal defense, trying cases in different states and such. I knew criminal law and how to try a case.  I never handled a mortgage foreclosure case and now I was taking the bench in the mortgage foreclosure section of the Circuit Court of Cook County.”

Many new judges remember the emotions they experienced when a self-represented litigant told them, “Please, Judge, help me. You are my only hope.” And then they had to explain why it is not the judge’s job to represent an unrepresented person. Perhaps that litigant questioned the fairness of the justice system.

That new robe can feel very heavy.

For many years, the New Judge Seminar has been a pillar of judicial education in Illinois. Traditionally, it has been a mandatory annual weeklong event for all judges who have joined the bench in the preceding year. The focus of the NJS is on the skills needed by a new judge that are different than the skills needed by a good lawyer. It is assumed a good judge can eventually discern the applicable law. But lawyers rarely encounter the law of contempt, for example. It is the judge who manages jury selection, gives plea admonitions, conducts child interviews, etc. Today, the NJS is a skills-based learning experience.

Judicial skills include more than understanding the mechanics of managing a courtroom. New judges need to learn neutrality, demeanor, a commitment to access to justice, principles of procedural fairness, and how to interrupt implicit bias.

As AOIC Deputy Director and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Deanie Brown put it,

“If it’s about people, it’s ultimately about diversity and inclusion in a fundamental sense because people and their backgrounds, circumstances, and stories come before judges, and judges must see them, hear them, and seek to understand them. In this way, we can approach and embrace diversity and inclusion as components of the suite of skills needed for the work as judges.”

How to teach those kinds of skills? The Illinois Judicial College has adopted several creative approaches. For example, one methodology was developed by the Supreme Court Committee on Equality based on the research by Dr. Andrea Miller, Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Senior Court Research Associate at the National Center for State Courts. She urges new judges to adopt methods of deliberative decision-making—using bench cards and checklists, taking good notes, writing out opinions before announcing them orally, setting aside time for thinking and case preparation, and being aware of judicial wellness.  

Another technique used by the College is called “object-based inquiry.” Recommended by Loyola University Chicago Professor of Education Dr. Seungho Moon, this method cultivates a mutual respect for diverse perspectives.  

College Board of Trustees Member Judge Thomas Donnelly explains,

“the technique is simple: the instructor takes an object, usually an historical artifact or a work of art and explores with a small group what they see in the object or artwork. The fruit of these discussions is the realization that even simple artworks or historical objects yield a multitude of interpretations. While some selected artworks are familiar pieces such as Grant Wood's "American Gothic," others may be works by minority artists that particularly showcase a diverse perspective, for example, Kerry James Marshall's "Many Mansions." Similarly, historical artifacts may include, for example, a Torrens certificate that includes a racially exclusionary covenant.

Research has shown that this technique builds mutual respect for other perspectives, helping participants to value diversity of viewpoint. This pedagogy has had far greater effect than a more didactic, less experiential technique. Because the participants begin to see more through the sharing of perspective, they convince themselves rather than having to be convinced.”

COVID-19 has made this kind of intense learning experience a challenge. The NJS Work Group, the Judicial College Board of Trustees, and the Committee on Judicial Education worked closely with consultants from the National Judicial College to create a new platform for new judges.

Judge James Snyder is the Chair of the NJS Work Group.

“Shared learning and peer support are at the heart of all Illinois continuing legal education, especially so for our new judges. Our expanded New Judge Orientation program is using methods for the delivery of substantive judicial education and for the development of professional interpersonal experiences.

Our New Judge Orientation program assigns every new judge a cohort learning group of 8 to 10 judges. They participate in a full year of live interactive remote education taught by judges from all over Illinois. They also meet regularly for a confidential group discussion with two experienced cohort leader judges. The cohort discussion program enhances peer support and mentorship and allows judges to experience the value of our great demographic and geographic diversity. 

Born out of the necessity of social distancing, we have found some ways that may be better than the old. Judges are finding ways to have togetherness, until we actually can be together again.”

The first line of Canon 1 of the Code of Judicial Conduct is the core of the judicial rules of professional conduct. “An independent and honorable judiciary is indispensable to justice in our society.” To promote the public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary, the Illinois Judicial College and the New Judge Orientation program provide high quality educational opportunities—especially for new members of the Illinois bench.