Imagine you are an attorney that has practiced tax law for the past twenty years. You are known to be a well-respected and diligent attorney in this area of law. Now you have decided to take the next step in your legal career and become a Superior Court Judge. The qualifications to become a judge in California are as follows: to be a United States citizen, a resident of the State of California, and a California licensed attorney for ten years. An attorney can be appointed to the bench by either a nonpartisan election or the Governor of California can appoint you. Each new trial court judge and subordinate judicial officer (commissioner) must complete the “new judge education” before taking the bench. New Judge Education is required by all “new” judges and includes the New Judge Orientation Program and Judicial College. As a new judge if you are assigned to go to criminal court you will have to get up to speed on procedural and substantive law that you were not exposed to as a tax attorney-including the law of bail.
What kind of training do judges receive before taking the bench?
Judges have three primary forms of training: New Judges Orientation, an orientation course in his or her primary assignment, and the Judicial College. Judges actually are not required to take much training before hearing cases-they just need to get training within a certain period of time after taking the oath. For example, new judges can hear cases for as long as two years before attending Judicial College.
Rule 10.462 lays out the minimum education requirements for new judges in California. The New Judge Orientation Program (NJO) must be taken within six months of taking the oath as a judge. This is a weeklong program that teaches new judges the basics of the position. A judge can begin hearing cases before NJO, however, as long as the program is taken within six months. Judges are also required to take an orientation course in his or her primary assignment (civil, criminal, family, juvenile delinquency or dependency, probate, or traffic) within one year of taking the oath as a judge or subordinate officer. New Judges must also take the two-week course at the B.E. Witkins Judicial College of California within two years of taking the oath as a judge. However, this training is only offered every summer. This essentially means that a new judge could be appointed in September and be required to hold a calendar for nine months before having the opportunity to attend Judicial College.
Throughout the course of your career as a judge you are required to complete 30 hours of continuing education every 3 years. New judge education courses do not apply to these required hours. At least 15 hours must be completed in live, face-to-face education.
Being a tax attorney newly appointed as a judge you could be hearing cases for six months before having orientation, a year before ever taking an orientation course in this new area of law, and up to two years before you ever attend Judicial College.
Santa Clara County Numbers
Out of the fifteen new judges appointed in Santa Clara County since 2011 four have a previous background in criminal law, nine have a background in another area of law, and two judges were unreported. Now imagine the presiding judge in Santa Clara County decides to assign you to a criminal calendar. Having had a career in tax law this is an unknown area. Many judges sit in watching another judge before taking the bench solo in order to “learn the ropes”. Leading up to your first calendar sitting on the bench as a judge you have possibly attended NJO, maybe sat in for a few weeks observing the calendar, and most likely not yet attended Judicial College. For some judges without an extensive background in criminal law, nine judges since 2011 in Santa Clara County, this may be an intimidating position to be in.
Even those attorneys having an extensive background in criminal law should still be properly trained before taking the bench and engaging in a completely different role. For example, making determinations about a specific individual regarding bail is something no attorney, criminal or not, has had to do during their career. Having the powerful position of determining the future course of someone’s life is not a task to be taken lightly. However, there are resources such training manuals to assist judges in these difficult situations.
How do other states compare to California?
New Jersey is one of only eight states in which no judges stand for election: every judge is appointed. Unique to New Jersey is the Judicial Performance and Education Programs. Included in New Jersey’s Judicial Education Programs is the Orientation Program which is “designed to facilitate the transition of newly-appointed judges from bar to bench and to provide comprehensive training in the State’s judicial practices and procedures.” New judges are also given a mentor judge who they can turn to for information and help during their new role.
The Division Comprehensive Judicial Orientation Programs (CJOP) offers newly appointed and rotated judges immediate training in their new assignments from experienced judge faculty. For example, a newly-appointed Superior Court Judge who is assigned to Family Court is required to complete this program before hearing any case. This program is even offered and required for all veteran judges who are reassigned to a new role from a different division (i.e. criminal).
Clearly New Jersey is not lacking in judicial training for judges. Judges have a wide range of opportunities and requirements in order to be properly trained in their new role before sitting on cases just as California does. The main difference between California and New Jersey is the timing component. The programs offered in both states are very similar and comprehensive. However, in New Jersey new judges are REQUIRED to at least have some training before they hear a case.
When you compare the training practices that judges in California, specifically Santa Clara County, receive to other programs in place such as in New Jersey, you begin to understand how there may be issues regarding judges’ duties, such as determining and setting bail. If newly appointed judges receive little to no training before hearing a case what factors are they considering before making their determinations regarding issues such as bail? What information do they know about the defendant before setting bail? Do judges simply listen to superiors and colleagues when attempting to make difficult bail determinations? These are all questions that I hope to answer with my further blog posts to hopefully understand and attempt to fix problems that judges face when setting bail for defendants.