Meeting the Challenge of Educating Court Managers

By Hartley, Roger E.; Bates, Kevin | Judicature, September/October 2006 | Go to article overview

Meeting the Challenge of Educating Court Managers


Hartley, Roger E., Bates, Kevin, Judicature


Given the impending retirement of current court administrators, it is time for the judicial system to work with academia to secure effective administration and management in the next generation.

The need for a well-trained, professional class of court administrators is not a new subject to those who work in and study the profession. In the early 1970s, there were discussions and partnerships among educators, court managers, and legal professionals that focused on the need for quality management in our courts. They concluded that court managers needed skills that were not found in law schools, but were instead found in schools of public administration, public policy, criminal justice, and business.

Over time, the academic programs that sprang from this early cooperation largely disappeared (e.g. the University of Southern California and American University programs), or altered their missions to meet new market needs (e.g., the University of Denver Masters in Judicial Administration). Recently, there was some renewed attention to court management in higher education, but questions have been raised about whether these efforts are enough to reach students. Today, the need for effective court managers is greater than ever. It is time for the judicial system to renew and institutionalize its partnership with academia in order to create the next generation of court managers.

Administrative needs of courts

Federal, state, and local courts face numerous challenges to functioning effectively. They must handle rapid case-load growth, accommodate increasingly diverse and foreign language-speaking populations, keep pace with technological advances, coordinate with other governmental and nonprofit agencies, and conduct community outreach and education programs. They must do all this, and more, under ever-tighter budgets and increased spending accountability.

Wheeler argued that effective court management is a necessary ingredient of judicial independence.' To secure independence, court managers must influence government agencies that have more resources and are better staffed, putting the courts at a disadvantage when working to secure budgets and make policy changes. A poorly run court could lose legitimacy with the public, invite the scrutiny of other branches of government, and lose some of its valued independence. These issues and others led to the rise of the court management profession.2

Amid these mounting pressures, the current generation of court managers (trained in the 1970s and 1980s) is preparing to retire. The impending loss is unfortunate, but it creates the opportunity to educate and train a new class of managers-people who are sophisticated and multi-talented, politically astute, and culturally sensitive. Court management evolved as a vocation. Now it is a full-fledged profession.

The profession

Because there is at least one court in each county in America, there are more courts to manage in rural than in urban areas. However, in urban areas, the courts are far larger and more complex. They have many functions and departments, creating the need for layers of managers in both line and staff roles. Historically, court managers were people who worked their way up in the courts; they often entered the profession unintentionally. Some college-educated managers started by working a summer job or internship; others applied for their first job in a federal or state court system. Interestingly, many managers began in entry-level positions that required only a high school diploma.

A study based on a 1989 survey examined the educational background of court managers.3 While the article is dated, the authors found that court managers are rather heterogeneous in their educational backgrounds. The survey of 603 court managers in the United States indicated that 28 percent had earned a master's degree; 26 percent possessed a bachelor's degree; 10 percent had a two-year associate's degree; 22 percent graduated from high school; 13 percent had a law degree; and 2 percent had earned a Ph.

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