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Why do we have courts?

James Redwine

I just spent a few weeks with some of my judge friends and several highly skilled on-staff educators helping the National Judicial College present two continuing education courses to other judges.

One of the courses concentrated on judges whose jurisdictions are more rural, and the other course was designed as a general overview for all courts. Both courses were taught via the Internet due to COVID-19.

The National Judicial College is located in Reno, Nevada, and has taught thousands of judges from all over the world with a concentration on the United States and its territories. The faculty is usually composed of experienced judges and experts in many related disciplines such as pharmacology, penology, sociology, court security and psychiatry. Chances are excellent that if you have been involved with a judge as a juror or a litigant that your judge has attended the NJC in person or virtually for some continuing judicial education course.

The courses are usually short in duration and take place in Reno most of the time, although many courses are taught in other states and even other countries. Or, at least they were until ’Ole 19 arose. I took my first NJC course in 1986 and joined the faculty in 1995 after 10 years practicing law and 15 years as a judge. I still benefit greatly from the opportunity to learn from other judges how to be a better judge.

While there are an amazing number of American courts designed to meet the needs of our complex and diverse society, all of them come under the rubric of addressing legally-related social problems. In other words, in the non-criminal area, courts exist to resolve controversies that members of society have not been able to fairly and satisfactorily work out on their own. And in the criminal sphere courts provide a forum where innocent defendants and innocent victims can seek a just outcome and guilty defendants can be removed from society and/or be rehabilitated.

The essence of a court and the raison d’etre for judges is to solve problems and resolve controversies. While movies and television might lead one to define our legal system in terms of nihilism and relative morality, most judges understand and embrace their true role as peacemakers. In fact, as with a lot of entertainment, what draws an audience to such legerdemain as displayed by Hollywood is the stark difference in the actual daily administration of justice experienced by most users of court services and the cynicism, sarcasm and rudeness of fictionalized judges.

Most real judges believe and practice the admonition of that great lawyer and judge of human nature, Abraham Lincoln, who advised those of us who are charged with the duty of administering justice:

“Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbor to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser, in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker the lawyer (and Judge) has a superior opportunity of being a good man (person).”

So, what law schools and judicial colleges such as the National Judicial College and others throughout the world do teach and should teach is rather akin to the wisdom of the Hippocratic Oath: “First do no harm”. In like manner, a judge’s highest calling is to help make her or his community a better place to live by aiding those who have to come before the judge to resolve their conflicts fairly by themselves. Then, if they are unable to do so, the judge must ensure the legal system produces a just outcome for them.

However, you probably are aware that in America almost every court case is resolved without a trial, so society as a whole must already strongly believe that compromise is more just than conflict.

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