The President's Column: Citizen Lawyers in Black Robes - President Shares Judges’ Thoughts About Bench–Bar Relations
by John Baker
Judges are Citizen Lawyers, too. This month, my citizen-lawyer theme explores how several judges choose to stay involved, and the effect that their involvement has on
Denver District Court Judge William W. Hood III says community involvement is important to his judicial role. He finds the interaction not only fulfilling, but also crucial for keeping in touch with the community he serves.
"I would probably lose my mind without it. This job can be very isolating. I need the social contact that community service helps provide," said Hood.
Hood is active in Denver Public Schools, stepping in as a guest teacher, and even helping draft a semester-long course where students examine a real criminal case in depth. Hood also gives court tours to students. He helps out with the bar’s High School Mock Trial program, serving as presiding judge in scrimmages, regional and state tournaments. Regular citizens might catch him at their Rotary Club, for example, speaking at an Our Courts program about the benefits of Colorado’s merit selection and retention system.
You might see Judge Hood at the next bar gathering you attend. He speaks at events and teaches at CLEs at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and at the National Institute of Trial Advocacy. He also has written for "The Colorado Lawyer." Judge Hood is an active DBA Trustee.
When people ask Denver District Court Judge Robert McGahey why he stays involved by teaching at DU and for NITA, he says lightheartedly, "Self-defense!" We all know, though, that the more skills and professionalism new lawyers have, the better it is for everyone.
"The real reason is that I love being around young people who are just starting their journey as lawyers, to watch them gain confidence and knowledge, to watch them master skills they will use in the future to benefit others, to see them start to fall in love with the law," said McGahey. "These women and men are the future of the profession; they will be in courtrooms advocating for their clients long after I’m dead. To talk to them and work with them is personally inspiring and an affirmation of the value of the law as an institution. And it reminds me why I wanted to be a lawyer in the first place."
McGahey teaches young students while he conducts court tours (at least 50 per school year) that are organized through the bar. Apparently, teachers regularly request to see Judge McGahey. He, too, works closely with the bar’s mock trial program. Judge McGahey received the NITA volunteer faculty of the year award for the third time.
When lawyers first apply for the job of being a judge, it is easy to underestimate just how much work is involved. Initially, judges’ isolation may be based on the sheer weight of the responsibility involved. Judges also feel isolated from friends in private practice. Their friends aren’t certain whether it is proper for them to contact a judge, and if so, how to go about that.
"With any luck, some of your colleagues try to remind you that isolation will not be a good idea, especially isolation from your colleagues," said Denver District Court Judge Christina Habas. "I eventually learned that separating myself from lawyers was not a good thing. It kept me from listening to the very people who use the court system most frequently, missing out on some good ideas."
One of the best ways to address any gaps between the bench and the bar is for judges to remain connected, Habas said. There are countless ways attorneys and judges alike can connect, including attending speaking engagements, classes and events put on by the non-issue related specialty bar associations. Habas is a speaker for the Our Courts program, a coach for the Aurora Central High School mock trial teams. Each year she helps recruit volunteers at the regional and state tournaments. Habas donates her court vacation time to provide NITA trial skills training to public service lawyers.
About her heritage as a trial lawyer, Habas said: "I am proud to be a lawyer and I am also proud that I have many friends who are lawyers. I intend to keep things that way."
Denver County Court Judge James B. Breese helps lead the Bench–Bar Committee. At Inns of Court meetings, he hears the tales and travails of people actively practicing. Teaching at DU, he is reminded of the concerns of law students. At public speaking engagements, he hears about what is going on in the business world. And riding in the Courage Classic reminded him that some people have enormous personal challenges, he said.
"As a judge I live in a pretty isolated world. I am in my own courtroom with my own rules and procedures. Because I must avoid having close connections or relations with attorneys who practice before me, I must keep my distance. As a result, I find that I must consciously seek opportunities to meet with members of the extended legal community and the public.
Breese volunteers within the judicial system, working on jury issues, sheriff issues and computer issues. He likes helping with special projects like preparing the court system for the demands of the Democratic National Convention. He said he finds his work on Bar projects to be especially rewarding.
"On the Bar committees, I find other people who are animated by the same issues. It is energizing to be working with positive people who are willing to work to improve the system," said Breese. "These volunteers are usually hard-working, open-minded and creative. This work often accomplishes important changes that bring concrete improvements to the judicial system."
"I find all of this helpful in expanding my horizons. Mixing with people outside the judicial world is also important. All of these contacts are important and meaningful for me to keep in touch with the pulse of the community and for them to keep in touch with me."
Duly noted, Judges.