Federal appeals court Judge Don Willett says landing on the bench is a “lightning-strike moment” in which everything has to align.
Being prepared helps, and now aspiring judges can get a leg up at the National Judicial College on the ins and outs of landing a coveted spot.
A first-of-its-kind course offers participants the “opportunity to learn about the best ways to present their credentials so they can be successful in their elections or appointments,” said William Brunson, director of special projects, custom courses and international programs.
“Perhaps just as importantly, they will learn whether the profession of being a judge is right for them,” he said.
In addition to the demands and complexities of being a jurist, a seat on the bench also can place limits on what’s been ordinary in everyday life, like membership in a club, owning a business, or engaging in politics or social media.
It’s “true that those seeking judicial positions often don’t know what they don’t know,” Willett said.
The Reno-based judicial college started in the 1960s, and focuses primarily on state courts. Some 10,000 appointed or elected judges go through it annually via in-person and online courses and webinars, said NJC President Benes Aldana.
Judicial candidates may have had career success, but they don’t always have the building blocks to be a judge.
For example, one of President Donald Trump’s early district court nominees, FEC Commissioner Matthew Spencer Petersen, was foiled due to his lack of knowledge of common evidentiary doctrines.
The gaps included the Daubert standard for expert witnesses and motions in limine seeking to exclude certain evidence. Petersen withdrew from consideration after a grilling at his Senate confirmation hearing.
Aldana said that many countries require some kind of training for judicial hopefuls. That’s not the case in the U.S., with the exception of military judges. He’s a retired Coast Guard judge.
NJC’s five-day, $1,300 training in October for aspiring judges is geared for trial attorneys, Brunson said. Nineteen of the 41 participants come from private practice, often small firms or working on their own.
The group includes five prosecutors, four public defenders, and nine who work in the public sector. Several work for American Indian tribes.
Aldana said diversity overall was a driving consideration, too. Participants come from 16 states, 30 are women, and the mix includes Asians, Blacks, and Hispanics.
Judges, judicial selection professionals and other experts will help guide the class. A sampling of course work includes judicial history and judicial philosophy, as well as instruction on managing cases and writing, the course’s online entry said,.
Training aspiring judges may seeming ethically squishy to some. The conservative Heritage Foundation came under fire in 2018 after it advertised a training for incoming federal clerks.
Critics accused the group of trying to indoctrinate young lawyers holding valuable judicial positions.
“We considered this question for some time,” Brunson said. Ultimately, though, "[w]e decided that education is always helpful.”
The Federal Judicial Center also offers a week-long orientation for newly confirmed federal judges, known colloquially as “Baby Judges School.”
And that isn’t the end of education. Willett, for instance, is one of a handful of jurists who completed a Masters degree in Judicial Studies at Duke University.
It was a serious time commitment for the then-Justice of the Texas Supreme Court, but Willett said it was a “godsend.”
“There were roughly 18 of us in the class—some state judges, some federal, some international; some trial courts, some appellate, some courts of last resort,” he said.
“It was a rollicking, eclectic mix of inquisitive jurists who all wanted to up our judicial game,” he said adding that the professors included late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Samuel Alito.