Judicial Ethics for All: An Expansive Approach to Judicial Ethics Education*

Article excerpt

This article explores the need to expand our way of thinking about teaching judicial ethics to include audiences that have not typically been addressed. Specifically, the article explores how judicial ethics is being taught in state court systems and suggests ways to broaden its application to different groups of both lawyers and nonlawyers. If judicial ethics is taught in a way that is meaningful to these audiences, they will, in turn, benefit by appreciating more fully the unique role of the third branch of government. They will also be in a better position to assist the judiciary in complying with its obligations under its respective codes of conduct.

While sitting judges, especially brand-new judges, certainly are the primary group or whom the teaching of judicial ethics is important, they are by no means alone in needing this education. With the recent passage of an updated version of the ABA's Modei Code of Judicial Conduct, it is an appropriate time to consider expanding the audience of judicial ethics learners to include various subsets of lawyers: lawyersto-be (law students), practicing lawyers, lawyers serving as part-time (pro tern) judges, lawyers interested in becoming judges, lawyers involved in the appointment or election process as candidates for judicial office, and lawyers serving as judicial law clerks (ABA, 2007). The subject of judicial ethics should be taught to nonlawyers as well: judges' family members, court staff, the media, and the public generally.

This article explores the current state of judicial ethics education in our state courts and suggests ways to broaden the field. Teaching judicial ethics to audiences other than judges and candidates for judgeships will help such groups - and the general public - appreciate more fully the unique role of the third branch of government (sometimes referred to as the "least understood branch") and will make it easier for the judiciary to comply with its obligations under the relevant codes of judicial conduct.


While not all law students will become practicing lawyers, all practicing lawyers and judges started out as law students. Thus, there is no better opportunity to teach judicial ethics to a "captive audience" of prospective lawyers and judges than in a lawschool class on the legal profession. While such courses have become quite popular, few law schools have incorporated judicial ethics into their curricula. Fortunately, because of increased interest in scholarship related to judicial ethics and judicial independence, that is beginning to change. If law students are to learn to "think like lawyers" (and they do, after all, spend the majority of their time in law school reading what judges have written about the law), then surely it is important for them to gain an appreciation for the basics of how to "act like a judge," with particular reference to the core values of judicial conduct: independence, impartiality, and integrity.

How should judicial ethics be taught in law school? Obviously, law professors are smart and can teach just about anything. But there is no real substitute for a "guest lecturer" who is a real-life judge. Probably the easiest and most effective way to teach judicial ethics to law students is for teachers of courses on the legal profession to invite a judge to speak on a panel with a practicing lawyer. Ideally, at least one of the participants would be a member of the judicial conduct advisory committee or the judicial discipline body for the state, and another might be a lawyer who represents judges in disciplinary proceedings. The goal would not be to study any codes of conduct in-depth, but rather to familiarize students with basic concepts of judicial ethics. Having judges tell "stories" of other judges who have been disciplined for ethical misconduct is one of the best ways to get the students' attention and to bring this topic to life. An invaluable source of information pertaining to - and interpreting - state codes of judicial conduct can be found in die hundreds of "published" advisory opinions of judicial conduct commissions and advisory committees of the various states. …