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. And, 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 experienced jurists. These might be called “go to the mountain top” cases.
“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.
Other 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. These 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 4-day course will provide attendees with an opportunity to examine the decision-making process in a wide variety of contexts. Using a story-telling format, judges Canan and Mize present challenging case studies and encourage participants to share their approaches to reaching just results in each instance.
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 decision-making process. Hopefully too, attendees will become enthused and empowered to become better judges.