I graduated from law school in 1993, completing three years of formal legal education in addition to my college degree. But for lawyers and judges, learning is always an ongoing process. The law evolves and changes over time, and it’s extremely important to keep current.
There are several ways we judges try to stay on top of the current state of the law.
First, all judges have to attend a week-long new-judge orientation course within their first year on the bench. Affectionately referred to as “Baby Judge School,” the week includes an introduction to all the various subjects a district court judge might encounter.
Most judges have some experience in many of those areas, but nearly everyone needs the program to fill in a few gaps. It is very practical training, most of it conducted by more-experienced judges. I have had the privilege of teaching one of the classes the past couple years, and it is an excellent program to start the process of judicial education.
After that, all judges must complete at least 45 hours of continuing judicial education every three years. Three hours must be related to diversity and inclusion topics.
There is a fairly detailed process for courses to be accredited, and they must be approved by the State Court Administrator’s Office. Courses must address the areas of judicial competence, performance, case management, opinion writing, diversity or administration.
After attending a course, the individual judge files a petition for credit, in which the judge affirms he or she attended the course. Judges’ credit hours are tracked in St. Paul, and we receive periodic reports on how many credits we have for the current reporting cycle.
There are two main events each year at which most Minnesota judges are able to get enough credits to satisfy requirements. The Supreme Court hosts a three-day conference in Minneapolis each December, and the Minnesota District Judges Association hosts a four-day conference in September. If a judge attends one of these each year, he or she should have no difficulty fulfilling credit requirements.
Aside from the more formal setting, most of us judges have other resources to keep us current. Most judges receive the publication “Minnesota Lawyer,” which includes summaries of all the recent appellate decisions.
Email is also a great tool. I receive summaries of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Minnesota Supreme Court and Court of Appeals decisions, and Minnesota federal court decisions via email. These tools are all in a format that lets us quickly skim the high points of the decisions and decide whether we need to read the full texts of the opinions.
Finally, we judges have each other to stay current. We routinely discuss new issues or ideas for how to do things better. A lot of conversations between judges start with, “Let me run something by you.”
Those conversations, getting to talk about the law with my colleagues, are among the best parts about my job.
I hope I never stop learning.
Dale Harris is a Sixth Judicial District judge in the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth.