Ross A. Munns, ICM Fellows Program Spokesperson 2013

 

Chief Justice Steele, President McQueen, Vice President Meeks, Dean Straub, faculty and staff of the National Center for State Courts, family, friends, and most importantly on this date - My Fellow Graduates! Thank you all for being here to join in celebrating this event.

I am truly honored to be recognized as spokesperson for such an esteemed group of court professionals, I consider this a privilege and it is certainly one that I will never forget. I sincerely thank my classmates for the opportunity.

Prior to getting into my official remarks, I would like to take a moment to commend the National Center for State Courts and the Institute for Court Management on the fine work in building and maintaining the program. Over the past year and a half, since first beginning this quest to achieve Institute for Court Management (ICM) Fellows status, it has become quite evident that a very high level of thought, planning, and research has gone into curriculum development. The National Center has now been instrumental in developing court leaders (both nationally and internationally) for some forty plus years; and during that time has been cognizant of the need to amend and evolve the program based on the judicial needs of the country. Suffice it to say, the persons involved in curriculum development, many of whom are frequently published and viewed as national experts in the field, have a comprehensive understanding of the challenging issues to be addressed in order for advancement in the field of court management.

As I prepared to write this speech I wanted to be sure to accurately portray the program’s overall impact felt by this group; to that end, I asked for input in highlighting areas considered most valuable by classmates. The definite common theme for all was the camaraderie and friendships gained by going through this experience together, learning from each other across jurisdictions and state lines, overcoming the challenges and persevering to achieve the ultimate goal of Fellows Graduation. Others expressed gratitude and appreciation for the quality of the program and consider this a crowning achievement in their careers, validating a certain level of expertise as public servants working in the court system. Some cited the achievements realized by completing their court projects and how the impacts through implementation may be felt for future generations. One of our classmates today will become a second-generation Fellow, describing this experience as a lifelong dream to follow in his father’s footsteps in earning this credential. As you can see, this class does not underestimate the gravity and value of this experience and is excited to see what the future holds now that this chapter of our lives is complete.

On a personal note, when I considered the overall program design, it started my thinking it may be beneficial to provide my own personal impressions on this experience.

Distance Learning Phase:

When I think back to the Distance Learning phase where we were first introduced to each other and enjoyed spirited debates on topics such as evidence-based management and specialty courts. My early impressions were that this program was something very special and quite unlike any training or education I had ever experienced. I know in our discussion groups I was able to experience vast learning simply by interacting with Theresa and Hilda, who are from the Appellate Court level in Wisconsin and a Municipal Court in the state of Texas, respectively. My being from a court of general jurisdiction (what we call the District Court) in North Dakota, it would have seemed like an unlikely grouping with little to gain from each other, but quite the opposite occurred. As we progressed in our discussions I found myself considering perspectives the likes of which I had yet to encounter, and that was a bit unnerving because I soon found out I did not have all of the answers. But I guess that is what they call growth, and those types of exchanges set the tone for the overall Fellows experience.

I found that the Distance Learning phase was extremely valuable because it gave us all the opportunity to begin forming relationships and understanding each others’ mindset prior to arrival for the three weeks in Williamsburg.

Residential Phase:

The Residential phase seemed magical in so many ways; it is difficult to describe the intense work we all did, yet at the same time so thoroughly enjoyed the experience and camaraderie that made each day fly by. I find myself, now almost a year later, still thinking back to the discussions we had together, and how the lessons apply to everyday challenges. We had presentations by President McQueen – providing foundation in exploring the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, and how the contentious issues considered by the Founders of this country helped lay groundwork for the checked and balanced system we continue to enjoy today.

The pieces on inter-branch and inter-agency relations have been extremely helpful this past year; with all the challenges my rural state of North Dakota has had with the rapid influx of population due to oil exploration, I have had countless opportunities to enact the lessons learned in building relationships. Amy McDowell, Dale Kasparek, and Dr. Brian Ostrum brought us further into the modern day courts, with discussions on the High Performance Court framework and emphasis on the need for court administration to ensure substantive and procedural “due process”. Dr. Straub covered topics including leadership and how it has become a performance art, and that being a diagnostician requires asking the right questions, which is critically important in addressing all the inherent challenges we face during this era of “cutback management”. Vice President, John Meeks presented on the importance of perspective in management – using the metaphor of a dance floor and the balcony to distinguish different levels of interaction; emphasizing the need for managers to observe, interpret, and intervene. For me personally, as difficult as it was to be away from my family for three weeks, the Residential Phase was by far my favorite stage of the program. The distinguished faculty and my classmates provided learning and an overall experience during that time that has changed my life forever.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the impact I felt by the location of Williamsburg, Virginia as the site for the in-person learning phase. A more perfect choice for the Residential program could not have been made. One can almost feel the history of our country all around (not to mention if you walk two blocks you can see it and hear it at Colonial Williamsburg). That setting plays a large part in creating an atmosphere conducive to learning and for me it provided a renewed energy to want to continue to strive for judicial branch improvements the way this country’s founding fathers strived so hard to build the initial framework of our government. The influence of the surroundings coupled with the fellowship and support from classmates and faculty, really did bring the overall experience to new and unexpected levels.

Court Project Phase:

The Court Project phase was the most challenging for me, in part due to my topic choice of jury management. Basing one’s study on an area for which you are passionate, as I did, may result in providing unintended impacts. I found, the more areas I researched, the wider the scope of my study grew. Because of my aspirations to complete a state-wide analysis, which required gathering data and formulating recommendations across Unit and District lines, I did encounter some “minor turbulence” in data collection. But in the end, with the assistance of a highly invested project advisor, Dr. Nicole Waters, I was able to complete a study which will now be used to consider future jury management improvements across the state of North Dakota. The Court Project phase presented the opportunity to pursue intense study of a critical issue in my state. The results of my project have potential to provide far-reaching improvements in what I consider a cornerstone of our system, that being proper and efficient jury management.

Project Presentation Phase:

I viewed the Project Presentation phase as THE opportunity to present the fruits of all the hard work that went into my court project over this past year. I did find it a challenge to condense and isolate the critical areas and findings from my study; I found myself not wanting to leave anything out because of how hard I worked to compile the information. The Presentation phase is a nice way to capstone this entire experience and allows us to display project findings to an expert panel of court professionals, and to receive feedback that will ultimately assist in implementing any future change based on the project.

Greatest Impact:

Out of all the program phases, experiences, and discussions encapsulated in the Fellows curriculum, the one learning element that stands above all others to me is the concept of professional relationships and communication. I still hear President McQueen’s message of the importance of relationships, and how it is so true – when we take the time to “break bread”, so to speak, with stakeholders and representatives from other branches of government, it can have a rewarding impact on finding solutions. Our 26th U.S. President, Teddy Roosevelt once said, “The most important single ingredient in the formula of success, is knowing how to get along with people.” This is a telling statement, because the method and delivery by which we choose to communicate does matter; everything about it does indeed affect the exchange and possible outcomes. The ability to impress upon others, the potential impact of decisions is essential to compromise.

As President McQueen intimated, we do not have to give the list of demands or specifically direct certain actions, but rather to present options and the desired results, then allow time for deliberation. When other entities consider the impacts to their organizations, we will have higher levels of acceptance and participation than if we had simply directed or demanded the change. Just as the legendary coach, John Wooden used to teach, “One must give respect in order to get respect, and that people will work harder and better when they know their opinions are valued.” In this or most any other field of management, the use of “collegial conversation” will yield the best results. All other knowledge, skills, and abilities aside, if we as court leaders can appreciate and master the art of building relationships, we stand to achieve markedly higher levels of success in our careers.

Even though this journey we have made together is officially culminating today, I am quite certain based on the relationships that have developed within this class; we will be calling upon one another for years to come as we navigate new waters in this field. Though it seems it is apparent, “a few” of Roscoe Pound’s 1906 ‘popular causes of dissatisfaction’ may still remain in this modern era of the courts; the tension for court managers will continue to build with challenges like budget and staff shortages, and the rising costs and increased complexities within the judicial system. Continuous media scrutiny, with 24/7 coverage by major networks, not to mention independent blogs and social media has made the exercise of trying cases in the media a common practice. Due to the many avenues of potential outside influence, including the other branches of our government, the concern of compromised judicial independence is a frequent topic of debate. One on which Former Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Hon. Sandra Day O’Connor has stated, upon initial design of the system, “The Founders realized, there has to be some place where being right is more important than being popular or powerful and where fairness trumps strength; and in our country, that place is supposed to be the courtroom.”

Amidst all the afore mentioned challenges, court administration is charged with the mission to somehow craft balance with an ever increasing court volume, threats to judicial independence, and a public that has now heightened expectations due to being conditioned by our fast paced society. As Ernie Friesen likes to remind us, “justice delayed is justice denied”, but caseflow management issues continue to mount across the country. To be direct, in many areas of this country the supply of available court dates is not keeping up with the demand of case volume, and the resulting delays may potentially damage public trust and confidence in our courts.

The Chief Justice in my home state of North Dakota, Hon. Gerald W. VandeWalle is a huge contributor and support for the advancements in the field of court administration. He speaks often on this subject and when doing so, emphasizes the importance of an efficient, smooth-running and above all, fair court system. The implication of his point is made when he explains that a person’s perceptions of the courts can taint his or her attitude toward government in general. Chief VandeWalle recognizes the need for constant attention and concern as it pertains to our court system and has stated, “Though it was once touted as indestructible, the public now demands a more efficient system of administering justice and a better system of access to justice. And it is through the leadership of court administration that we are seeking ways to respond to the demand.” Chief VandeWalle emphasizes, “Court managers must recognize they are the face of the judiciary and in some instances the outcome of the legal proceeding may not even be as significant as the manner in which we receive and treat court participants.”

The importance of fairness and proper treatment in court dealings was an area addressed in years past by Former Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Hon. Thurgood Marshall – when he remarked, “Mere access to the courthouse doors does not by itself assure a proper functioning of the adversary process.” Meaning, it is deeper than simply allowing physical access to the system, we must strive to ensure equality and perceived equality to all those involved. Court Managers are in a position to effect safeguards in this area by incorporating proper training to the staff and providing clear understanding of the court’s mission and vision to provide equal and fair access.

In closing, I’d like to once again quote a man who spent a fair amount of time in “solitude" in my home state of North Dakota, collecting his thoughts and realizing his true “self” before going out to change the world; Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” WE have all made the choice work in the Judicial Branch; some of us have been doing so for many years and some not so long. ALL of us now know we are facing unprecedented challenges within our government, including the judicial system. Many of these challenges are simply due to the uncertain times we now live in with the fast-paced societal expectations and the difficulty of providing timely access and fairness. Together, we must readily acknowledge our greatest challenges still lie ahead in safeguarding and preserving the courts for future generations, which will no doubt be “hard” work, but definitely work “worth doing”.

We have every right to be proud of this accomplishment, that is, to join the ranks of ICM Fellows. What we did by completing this curriculum and what the Fellows Program does is to exponentially advance the individual’s collective ‘best’ in terms of knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to effectively manage in the court setting. As prestigious as this is, the achievement of Fellows status does not mean we stop listening and learning as we move forward. – I challenge YOU, the Graduating Fellows Class of 2013, to continue to hone your skills and always strive to better your ‘best’, so that when faced with obstacles you will know that your best efforts will be guaranteed to achieve the greatest possible results. Stay sharp and have confidence in your abilities, because you have been tried and tested and you made it! WE made it!

… And with that, I would like to say, Congratulations to the Fellows Class of 2013! Good luck in all your future endeavors, both personal and professional!! Thank you –