Lessons from Tough Cases: Judging, Judicial Independence, Faithfulness to the Rule of Law
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
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.