This week, 38 new trial judges in Pennsylvania are taking a key step on their way to the bench. As required by court rules, they have convened at Penn State University to complete a seven-day course of study designed specifically for first-time trial judges, often called “new judge school.”
The program is meant to help ease the transition to becoming a judge, according to Stephen Feiler, Director of Judicial Education for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
“Being a judge is remarkably different than being an attorney,” Feiler said. “Attorneys advocate for their parties, and judges, of course, need to be unbiased. And that takes a different mentality and a different approach to the law, and a different approach to their occupation.”
“New judge school” provides instruction in all of the major areas of law its participants could potentially address, from the Court of Common Pleas to the Philadelphia Municipal Court. The students also study topics, including criminal, civil and family law.
The program, Feiler said, also provides training in judicial ethics, an area that new judges often need the most.
“Judges are ... bound by that code of ethics 24 hours a day. They’re not relieved of those obligations when they leave the courthouse,” Feiler said. “It governs their behavior in the community, and so that garners a lot of questions, especially from our new judges.”
Feiler noted that when judges make legal or factual mistakes, they can be fixed on appeal. But, a judge who commits an ethics violation could be removed from the bench altogether.
Veteran judges from across the state lead many of the sessions, which consist of a mix of lectures and group discussions from the morning and into the evening.
“It’s really a very rigorous course of study,” Feiler noted. “But it’s also an opportunity for judges to make connections with their new colleagues and to develop these relationships which are going to support them throughout their careers.”
For the first-time judges, Feiler said, it’s a worthwhile experience.
“It takes an incredible amount of energy and dedication to get elected to the bench,” he observed. “And so, they’re very excited about being here and getting to know their new colleagues, getting to understand their new occupation.”
“New judge school” is a common practice across the U.S., and Feiler said his office consults with other states about best practices and how to keep improving its program.
In Pennsylvania, magisterial district judges, who do not need to be lawyers to get elected, complete a separate new judge program after passing a certification exam. Like trial judges, they also must fulfill continuing education requirements each year they remain on the bench.