National Judicial College celebrates 60 years

Hon. Benes Aldana

Hon. Benes Aldana

Q. What is the National Judicial College, and what does it provide to judges across the nation?
Founded in 1963 and based in Reno, since 1964, the NJC is the country’s oldest, largest and most widely attended school for judges. Every year we educate judges from all 50 states — in person on the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno, at other locations around the country, and, increasingly online.
In a given year, usually about 10,000 judges study with the NJC, although enrollment soared past 20,000 in 2020, when many judges had extra time for online study during the COVID-19 lockdown.
The NJC teaches courtroom skills, such as how to manage dockets, write opinions, and guard against bias and burnout, to the categories of judges that decide more than 95 percent of the cases in this country. These include state and local trial and appellate judges, limited jurisdiction judges, administrative law judges (think DMV, SEC, Social Security), tribal, military and immigration judges, and certain commissioners.
The college also offers a course for attorneys who aspire to become judges. Twenty-five graduates of the first four classes have already made it to the bench.
Based on the University of Nevada, Reno campus but separate from the university, the NJC is a private nonprofit and nonpartisan 501c3 supported by donations, grants and tuition.

Q. Explain its history.
The NJC began as a pilot program held in Boulder, Colo., in 1963. There was some fear that judges would resist attending continuing education courses. They worried about puncturing public perception that judges are all-knowing. But more than 360 judges from across the country ended up applying for 85 the available slots in the pilot program.
One of attendees was Judge Thomas Craven of Reno, who was so inspired by the experience that he came home and urged the trustees of Northern Nevada’s Max C. Fleischmann Foundation to provide funds for continuing the school beyond its initial trial year. The foundation helped establish what was then-called the National College of State Trial Judges on the campus of what was then called the University of Nevada in 1964.
Since the college’s beginning, almost all courses have been taught by volunteers — active and retired judges. Eleven Supreme Court justices have studied with or taught for the NJC, and the college’s highest award is named for the late Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who first learned how to be a judge at the NJC.
The NJC has been a cradle of major judicial innovations. For example, a longtime district court judge in Winona, Minn., named Dennis Challeen who taught at the college for more than 30 years is credited with inventing the concept of sentencing people to community service.

Q. How was the 60th anniversary of NJC marked in the Silver State?
The college held six 60th anniversary celebrations during 2023, two of them in Nevada. The first was Oct. 18 at the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa in Reno. The final event of the series took place at the Resorts World Las Vegas on Dec. 7.
Each event included continuing legal/judicial education programs on contemporary issues in the judiciary, such as diversity, being heard and ensuring fairness in court, and artificial intelligence and the law. The college also honored local individuals at each stop with its Making the World a More Just Place Award.

Q. What are some of the big issues that currently impact the courts that NJC helps with?
Security has become increasingly important. From local courts to the Supreme Court of the United States, many judges have experienced threats and even physical attacks. On Jan. 2 of this year in Clark County District Court, a defendant already convicted of attempted battery with substantial bodily harm leapt across the bench during sentencing and attacked Judge Mary Kay Holthus and a marshal.
Other issues include guarding against unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, in judicial decision making, how to deal fairly with the increasing number of self-represent litigants, the science behind climate change and drug addiction, and the likely increasing use of artificial intelligence in court filings.

Q. What will be an NJC focus area for 2024?
One huge topic not yet mentioned is threats to judicial independence. That’s the concept that judges should be free from threats of violence, political consequences, or any other kinds of outside influence so they can decide cases based entirely on the facts and the law.
Many state legislatures have introduced and even passed legislation that seeks to undermine the authority of courts or overrule decisions. Major political figures have insulted and called into question the integrity of judges.
In 2022, the NJC partnered with the International Academy of Trial Lawyers (IATL) and other organizations to present a national symposium in Chicago titled Democracy’s Last Line of Defense. The event focused on why and how to protect the rule of law and an impartial, independent judiciary. The college is helping to organize a follow-up event in Boston, March 13-14.

Q. How will AI impact the legal system?
The short answer is that remains to be seen. AI has already been used in research for some time. It can take teams of lawyers or paralegals days, weeks or even months to pore over millions of pages of legal records. An AI system can accomplish the same task in seconds and often more accurately. Unfortunately, studies have shown that these early systems are prone to “hallucinations,” such as citing nonexistent legal decisions. A more intriguing potential use of AI involves speculative analytics. A law firm could ask AI to calculate the odds of winning a case given a certain set of facts, including the past decisions of the judge assigned to the case.

Q. What are examples of cases that could involve AI?
Some courts, especially in other countries, have experimented with computerized decision-making, especially for minor matters such as traffic violations.
Some courts in this country have tested software that helps judges make bail and sentencing decisions. These proprietary systems are touted as tools to filter out human biases in decision-making. But studies have shown that they don’t always work, in part because of biased human decisions that led to earlier convictions. Those results could get baked into the algorithms.

Q: What do you see for the future of AI and the courts?
In his 2023 yearend report on the federal judiciary, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that an AI system was able to pass the bar exam. “Legal research may soon be unimaginable without it,” he wrote. AI could streamline case management, aid in evidence analysis, and enhance the accuracy of legal research.
But as we integrate AI into the judiciary, it’s crucial to address the challenge of mitigating bias in AI systems. Human oversight will play a pivotal role. AI should be used as a tool to assist human decision-makers, not replace them. This ensures that ethical considerations, which are inherently human, are taken into account in judicial decisions. Human oversight also provides a check against the limitations and potential errors of AI systems.

Q: Going forward, how do you envision the NJC working with policy leaders on AI guidelines?
We recently surveyed judges and lawyers and found out that 60 percent have no training on AI at all. But we also found a willingness to attend training on the subject. Thousands of judges across the country study with the NJC each year, so we are ideally positioned to help develop AI guidelines in collaboration with policy leaders. We foresee creating comprehensive AI training programs for all legal professionals.

Q: What other ethical guidelines involving technology can you share?
Data privacy and security. Maintaining transparency in AI algorithms. Promoting accountability for decisions made by or with the help of technology. These all fall into the category of protecting human rights and equality. All technology can be used for good or bad. We want to maximize the good applications in the justice realm and minimize the bad.
The Hon. Benes Aldana is president & CEO of The National Judicial College.


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