As any judge who has served on a busy trial court can attest, there are many assignments where the cases come at you so hard and fast that there is barely time to step into the box and take your stance before the next one comes zooming in. And that is true of the “easy” cases. In addition, there are cases where the judge has to wrestle with a problem so complex, or so emotionally draining, as to test the fortitude and impartiality of even the most competent and experienced jurists. These might be called “go to the mountain top” cases.
In busy trial courts, “mountain top” cases can appear in the garb of criminal, civil, probate, or family cases. Often the judge is unable to find any guiding legal precedent and is forced to navigate uncharted waters in search of the “just” result. Sometimes controlling legal precedent exists, but following it will lead to an unjust result. And then there are cases where the judge has very wide discretion to apply a vague legal standard, like “the best interest of the child” in contested child custody proceedings, or finding the “right sentence” in a criminal case, where the statutory range might run from no prison time at all to life in prison.
Some cases are hard not only because of the subject matter, but also because they capture the attention of the entire community and become highly politicized. This can be especially challenging for elected judges, who know that whatever decision they make may become the fodder for an opposition campaign when they next stand for election, and may ultimately cost them their judgeship. These political realities do not lessen the judge’s duty to decide each case in accordance with the facts and the rule of law, by reference to neutral principles. But these requirements can make the exercise of that duty more agonizing, knowing that the decision is likely to be unpopular with at least one large segment of the population.
This seminar will provide students with a rink side seat in the arena of judicial decision-making.
By analyzing and critiquing thirteen poignant stories written by trial judges who struggled with difficult cases, seminar participants should come away with valuable insights about the litigation process. Hopefully too, students will become enthused and empowered to become effective trial advocates and perhaps judges. Besides reading 13 stories written by judges about real life difficult cases, each student will select a judge and interview that jurist about his or her decision making process in a tough case or class of cases. The semester will culminate with students drafting a paper describing not only the issues requiring judicial decision, but also how the interviewed judge sets about deciding those issues.