Supporting Judicial Excellence

Jennifer K. Elek, Senior Court Research Associate, National Center for State Courts

How can states better support judicial professional development? A new study explores this question.

What does judicial excellence look like? This question has been the subject of much debate among court practitioners and scholars alike. Several historical efforts have sought to define performance standards for state court judges in the United States. The American Bar Association has led the country in this area, convening national committees of court leaders to help bring into sharper focus definitions of what constitutes proper or improper judicial conduct, and acceptable or unacceptable judicial performance, in carrying out the duties of judicial office.[1]  These models provide guidance on the judicial role and have been influential across the country and internationally. However, they are limited in their value for judicial professional development. 

Prevailing models of judicial performance and standards for judicial conduct are used by state judicial conduct commissions, state judicial performance evaluation programs, and others mainly to achieve accountability goals. They may identify specific performance deficiencies for remedial intervention or removal from office. Although this information can sometimes be helpful for judicial self-improvement, these models were not designed to support professional growth. And although the field of judicial-branch education is advancing rapidly, no framework on judicial excellence is used in the states to support the development of the well-rounded judge. 

A framework designed to support judicial excellence—one that is aligned with a developmental philosophy—could provide helpful guidance to judges as they plan their own professional development and to judicial mentors as they consider how to structure their support. This type of framework could also serve as a resource to those who provide judges with performance feedback, as well as to judicial educators as they conduct training-needs assessments and develop a balanced course catalog. Finally, it could inform the structure and variety of state judicial professional developmental programs and initiatives and provide a common language for coordinating efforts between them. 

With funding from the State Justice Institute and the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), and in partnership with the Illinois courts, my colleagues and I embarked on an intensive qualitative research study in 2015 to construct a framework to support judicial professional development.[2] The project benefited from guidance from a national advisory committee of state court leaders and research scholars from across the country. The resulting Elements of Judicial Excellence framework is based on the views of more than 100 high-performing circuit-court and associate judges as shared with project staff through series of confidential interviews, focus groups, and follow-up surveys from 2016-17. Discussions focused on how judges defined judicial excellence and on peer-recommended strategies to support professional growth. To our knowledge, no similar effort has ever been undertaken in the United States.

The Elements of Judicial Excellence framework (see Figure 1) comprises nine elements that capture the general knowledge, skills, abilities, and other individual characteristics that judges described as important to judicial excellence in their roles as:

  • Citizens of the Court Community (elements—Well-Being, Ethics and Integrity, Engagement);
  • Informed and Impartial Decision-Makers (elements—Self-Knowledge and Self-Control, Knowledge of the Law and Justice System, Critical Thinking); and

Leaders of the Court Process (elements—Building Respect and Understanding, Managing the Case and Court Process, Facilitating Resolution).

Figure 1. 

Based on this study, what judicial excellence means to judges appears to be much broader than what has been acknowledged in model guidance on the judicial role. For example, judges in this study described the importance not only of knowledge of the law and court rules, policies, and procedures, but also of a broader body of practical and operational knowledge. They described this broader universe of knowledge about the court community, stakeholder agencies, and other resources as essential for effective problem solving and decision making. In addition, judges recognized the importance of “soft skills,” like interpersonal and emotion management skills, to judicial excellence. These were also areas in which they observed significant variation among their peers. 
Turnover can be costlier to the judiciary than efforts to train and sustain engagement over the course of judicial careers. Judges in Illinois offered suggestions for how local developmental programs could be improved that may be relevant to other jurisdictions. For example, judges expressed interest in a more structured mentoring program, more opportunities to observe respected peers in court, more advanced training courses, and more interpersonal and emotional skill building even at introductory levels. The Elements of Judicial Excellence may stimulate and help to inform discussions among judges and other court practitioners about how local systems of judicial professional development can be improved to better address judicial needs over the course of a career.

[1] E.g., American Bar Association, Black Letter Guidelines for Evaluating Judicial Performance (Washington, DC: ABA, 2005); and American Bar Association, Model Code of Judicial Conduct (Washington, DC: ABA, 2003). 

[2] J. Elek, D. Rottman, S. S. Miller, and L. Hamblin (2017). Elements of Judicial Excellence: A Framework to Support the Professional Development of State Trial Court Judges (Williamsburg, VA: National Center for State Courts, 2017).

Reports are part of the National Center for State Courts' "Report on Trends in State Courts" and "Future Trends in State Courts" series.
Opinions herein are those of the authors, not necessarily of the National Center for State Courts.