Double the Surprises: Judges Gee and Bernal learn of their Payant Award in unlikely places

By By Judge Kristi Harrington, Faculty Forum Co-Editor

The College honored – and surprised – two faculty members this past year with the V. Robert Payant Award for Teaching Excellence.

On October 4, 2018, Judge Jennifer Gee was recognized for her more than 24 years of teaching at the National Judicial College. NJC President Benes Z. Aldana presented her with the Payant Award in San Antonio, Texas, at the 40th annual Conference of the National Association of Women Judges.

A little over two months later, Judge Margarita Bernal was honored as the other winner of the Payant Award for 2018 during a reception at the United States Supreme Court.

The Payant Award has been given annually since 1988 to recognize exemplary instruction by NJC faculty. Judge Payant served as the NJC’s dean and president from 1990 to 1999 after serving 20 years as a Michigan trial judge. Judge Payant passed away in September 2018.

Robert Payant Award Gee
NJC President Benes Z. Aldana with Judge Jennfier Gee and Trustee Judge Toni Clarke

Judge Gee said: “I was surprised to receive it. It was especially meaningful to me that President Aldana presented it to me at the National Association of Women Judges Conference in San Antonio. I have been very active in the NAWJ for years and know a lot of the members, especially the current and past board members. It felt special to have all these judges from all over the country congratulating me on the award.”

Judge Gee’s background exemplifies the extraordinary judges who teach at the NJC. She noted: “I’ve been a judge in one jurisdiction or another since 1982, so I’ve been on the bench for 36 years. I’ve worked in the federal sector as an administrative judge and as an administrative law judge. I’ve been a state administrative law judge, and I was appointed by the California Supreme Court to the California State Bar Court for a six-year term in 1989. The State Bar Court was created by the California legislature to discipline lawyers, and I was appointed to the very first State Bar Court. That was a challenge because there were no rules of procedure or rules of court and we had to draft them.”

Judge Gee teaches the Administrative Law: Fair Hearing course and additional custom courses. She enjoys teaching because it allows her to interact with students and hear about the different jurisdictions and variety of subject matter.

“It is heartwarming to be able to share my knowledge and experience with the judges who are new to the bench and to feel that I’ve helped them improve their skills,” she said.

She emphasized that the NJC is an invaluable resource for judicial education.

“The courses provide judges from a variety of jurisdictions, backgrounds and experiences with an opportunity to acquire knowledge that will make them better judges. The courses are relevant, and the faculty is excellent. Every faculty member I’ve known and worked with was concerned about educating and helping judges. Just as valuable as the academic knowledge the students get from attending the classes is the opportunity the NJC provides to meet other judges, especially from other jurisdictions, and to exchange ideas and approaches to problems and issues that we all face. It is a learning experience the entire time we’re at NJC,” stated Judge Gee.

Judge Gee has been married for 44 years and has two sons and one daughter who are all married and have very successful careers. Judge Gee is very proud of her three grandchildren — all under the age of 4. The family will be welcoming a fourth grandchild in the next year. She grew up in San Francisco and has lived in the San Francisco Bay area all her life.

Robert Payant Award
President Aldana with Judge Bernal and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

President Aldana surprised Judge Bernal with the second Payant Award of 2018 in December at a reception following a conversation with U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor at the Supreme Court.

Judge Bernal has taught for the College for 25 years, most recently in 2017. She took her first course with the College, Special Court Jurisdiction: Advanced, in 1986.

To date, she has taught 32 courses, 26 of them as part of the teams teaching Special Court Jurisdiction (regular and advanced). She also taught a class about the courts and the media, Basic Legal Affairs Reporting for Journalists.

In addition to her service for the College, she has taught on the issue of domestic violence for many years at the Arizona Law Enforcement Academy.

The child of immigrants from Mexico, a first-generation American, and a former public-housing resident, she became the first Latina appointed to the Tucson, Arizona, municipal court bench and served 26 years before taking early retirement in 2011.

Since leaving the bench she has served as a criminal defense attorney with a clientele consisting largely of undocumented immigrants from Latin America.

“I was totally surprised to receive the Dean Payant Award for 25 years of teaching at the NJC. I was beyond surprised to receive it at the U.S. Supreme Court by Justice Sotomayor. I had met her eight years ago, when I was admitted to the Supreme Court, as an attorney by the American Bar Association in April 2010. I took a chance and wrote her a thank-you note for the wonderful ceremony and we became ‘pen pals’ over the years, exchanging notes and Christmas cards, so it was a wonderful, shocking surprise to receive the award from her,” expressed Judge Bernal.

These are her recommendations for volunteer faculty teaching at NJC: “Never give it up. You are truly providing a service to the judges who attend and, by connection, to the public that comes before them. Each judge comes with different needs, some for the first time, others to keep current, and others as a remedial attendance, sent by their courts. It does not matter – give it your best shot.

“I found that I became more refreshed by my teaching and spending time with my fellow judges. I also found that it reminded me of what an honor it is to teach and to be a judge. I truly believe we have a profession as judges. Our continued education and development helps us personally and professionally become better at our work and, thereby, helps the public we serve. It helps us be the best judges in our amazing democracy, which is truly an example to the world.”

Congratulations, Judge Gee and Judge Bernal! Thank you for your commitment to The National Judicial College and to the education of our nation’s judges.

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