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Why judges go to conferences — boondoggle or benefit?

This is the eighth in a series of occasional commentaries on the judicial system from the perspective of a District Court judge.

Judge Mel Dickstein

Imagine being under the yolk of another person — afraid to disagree, or even speak — for fear of being beaten. This was what the moderator at a recent judges’ conference tried to convey by requiring each of the judges in the room not move upon threat of serious injury. The exercise went on for over an hour, giving us a sense of the oppression a woman feels from being controlled by domestic abuse, and discussing how judges can most effectively aid victims, and reform perpetrators. This was just one of the many programs judges participated in at the conference.

One of my former colleagues, now retired, thought conferences were a waste of time. I liked and respected him, but couldn’t disagree more on this subject. Judges go to conferences to share information with other judges, to keep current with changes in the law, and to better understand events that occur before us in court. For two or three days we aren’t in our courtrooms, or issuing decisions, but we’re working. Conferences aren’t a boondoggle, but an important part of our continuing effort to improve what we do.

One part of our conference, for example, focused on the neurobiology of trauma — how trauma affects the brain. The lecture was fascinating, helping us to understand why victims of violence may be unable to identify their assailant, or even remember details of their assault. In extreme circumstances our brain effectively shuts down to protect us from the horrors to which we are being subjected. And our bodies may effectively shut down as well — some people faced with extraordinary fear go physically limp — an uncontrollable response to an extreme circumstance. These phenomena may explain why a witness can’t remember details of a horrifying event — a rape, a beating, a kidnapping or an armed robbery.

Implications of Supreme Court rulings

One of the anticipated lectures each year is the annual summary of the most interesting U.S. Supreme Court cases. The lecture provides illuminating details regarding important legal developments. For example, a seminal U.S. Supreme Court opinion requires a speaker to appear in court and be confronted by the person against whom the witness’s testimony is directed whenever the statement at issue is testimonial. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has given little advice concerning when a statement is testimonial. But a recent Supreme Court opinion held that a child’s statement to a teacher that the child’s bruises were caused by his abusive father was not testimonial and therefore the teacher could testify in court to what the child told him. The child was not required to appear in court and be subject to cross examination. It helped immeasurably to discuss the potential implications of this decision on future proceedings.

We discussed other important issues, as well. Is an angry message on a Facebook post by a divorcing spouse covered by the First Amendment’s protection of free speech, or is it a true threat subject to limitations? When is a statute so vague as not to protect citizens from unreasonable prosecution because it’s not apparent what constitutes the criminal offense? These and a multitude of other issues were commented upon by one of the nation’s leading constitutional scholars. We learned and benefited from the address.

Another law professor discussed recent Minnesota Supreme Court opinions. Will the U.S. Supreme Court review the Minnesota Supreme Court decision that a compelled blood alcohol test may be a search incident to arrest, not subject to the 4th amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures? (A week later the U.S. Supreme Court decided to review the Minnesota decision). Does a Minnesota citizen have an expectation of privacy that prevents a search of their garbage without a warrant approved by a Court? May a child-support award be amended to consider the effect of derivative Social Security payments received by a mother as a result of the father’s disability? These and numerous other questions were discussed and analyzed so that judges can better appreciate the development of the law and rule correctly when similar issues appear before them.

The judges also examined how immigrant families and victims of crime can better receive justice in our courts, how to better manage our courtrooms, how to properly depart from a presumptive sentence in a criminal case, how language and cultural barriers affect court proceedings, and how judges can effectively work with conservators in probate proceedings, among other subjects.

Forever students

Judges, it’s clear, are permanent students because the law is ever changing. The legislature passes new statutes. The Supreme Court adopts new Rules of Procedure. The U.S. Supreme Court and the Minnesota Supreme Court issue new opinions. The legal landscape is constantly in flux, and judges have to keep current with the change.

All the while, judges are also adapting to new changes in procedures. Courtroom technology intended to provide time-saving steps are regularly introduced. The use of new software has to be learned and effectively implemented. Judges are asked for their input in order that our courts may become more efficient.

Sometimes our conferences open our minds to new ways of looking at old problems as we discuss issues of continuing importance for which there are no easy answers. How do we reach the goal of racial equity in our justice system? How do our conceptions of Native American culture impact the actions we take in court? How can we more adroitly handle cases involving serious issues of mental health? What happens when a person suffers from an addiction so serious it affects their physical and mental health? When is drug treatment mandated, and when should the chance for personal redemption give way to the need for incarceration?

We deal, as well, with issues that are unique to our profession — that only another judge can effectively comment upon. Amid all of the change that occurs in our courtrooms, amid the tension wrought by parties in conflict, confronted by the necessity to make decisions that have no clear answer, or the need to issue opinions that may forever change a person’s life — how do we deal with the stress? What’s the secret to a good night’s sleep when the issues of the past play in your head, or when the next day’s conflict keeps you awake, or when you wonder if you made the wrong decision — even after careful consideration, or because you had to make an important decision without the time to reflect?

Judges attend conferences each year to address the myriad issues that make the profession a difficult one. We deal with change, with new decisions, new procedures, new challenges, and new information. We try to find ways to accomplish justice within the construct of the law. And we look for the support of a wizened colleague who may have seen a problem and found a way to address it. Conferences give us a chance to exchange ideas and discuss important issues; sometimes they even give us a chance to laugh.

Mel Dickstein is a judge in Hennepin County District Court, where he handles a mix of civil and criminal cases. He is a former partner in the law firm Robins Kaplan.

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