Guest Blog from Judge James Vano on the Purpose and Future of the AJA



As we head toward Scottsdale for the 2014 Mid-Year Meeting, AJA leaders, Past Presidents, Officers, Governors, Committee Chairs, and all will be thinking about what needs to be done to or for AJA going forward. Do we need to re-invent the organization? Why is growth stagnant? What stimulation is needed? How do we change course? Wait! Do we need to change course? Do we stop meeting Mid-Year? Who are we trying to reach? Why?

We bill ourselves as “The Voice of the Judiciary” and claim to be an organization “of Judges, by Judges, and for Judges” yet we are sadly lacking in growth and individual commitment to do, to create, to be that Voice of the Judiciary that desperately needs to be heard in this new century of rapidly proliferating ideas and public commentary. People are more vocal than they used to be, regardless of their understanding of the issues. It seems everyone has some agenda or another, and a ready platform from which to espouse and vent their every whim and wish.

Across this country, we have Legislators dumping on the Judiciary, openly and publicly critical of decisions in forums from which the Judges are constrained ethically to enter. Most extreme in the assault on the integrity of the Judicial Branch of Government, a measure too often ignored by Judges and Lawyers alike, is the notion that the Judiciary should be self-funded (like any agency of government selling licenses and privileges to use or harvest state assets), in other words, be a “user pay” system. They think the benefit of a Judiciary is to the users, the litigants only and that funding should come from them. That is so short-sighted! Because court decisions are studied by the bar and others, people can order their conduct, can determine application of the rule of law to their affairs based upon the steady, consistent work of the Judiciary. We do not merely serve the few thousand litigants who come to our Courts every year, we serve the hundreds of thousands who do not. They can avoid litigation because they can see, by reason of stare decisis, the likely outcome of their disputes and avoid or resolve them without Court intervention. But, no one is telling the public that message. We need to do that. We are uniquely positioned to inform and defend the institution of the constitutional Judicial Branch, while we make ourselves yet better Judges in the process. We are about the stability of the law. Unfortunately, our stability may be leaving our organization stagnant when it should be vibrant.

So, what is AJA’s part in the national debate, in the assault upon judicial independence, if such a term still exists?

The “million dollar question” as we head to Scottsdale is this:  How do we kindle the spirit of the volunteer firefighter, who will get out of his warm bed in the middle of the nastiest bone-chilling winter night or leave her warm dinner on the table to go help a neighbor in need, in the hearts of our Judges? People, the house is burning down all around our society.

I don’t think there is any ready answer in a can.

Personally, I’m not ready to abandon the brand or jettison the concept. We don’t need to be run by some professional organization who will teach us what to think. I don’t think we need to have everything served to us on a platter. It is time to step up and take some risks, do the hard work for a change. Let’s think outside the box. Can we be “of, by, and for” each other and the people we serve? If we just want to join another organization and see what they are serving at the buffet today, there are plenty of other organizations just like that. Is that what we are?

In order to figure out how to reach them and why, we need to thoroughly examine who Judges are, generally. Let’s take a look at all the characteristics, the good, the bad, the ugly. Then, we need to honestly ask ourselves where we stand personally, individually. Do we fit the ideal? Are we the spark, the tinder, the fuel, the catalyst or the extinguisher?  What are you?

Judges are intelligent. But, they often think more highly of themselves than they ought. Judges are accustomed to having the last word, not offering a suggestion that might backfire or prove the Judge’s ignorance or shortsighted views. Judges are accustomed to people standing when they enter a room. Judges are used to being served, very rarely reflecting the heart of a servant. Judges see themselves as “leaders” rather than oarsmen at the bottom
of the slave galley living only to serve the ship.[1]

Many Judges hold their offices in politically charged jurisdictions and, perhaps, think their time in office is so short-lived that they can hardly justify too much personal investment in a system they may be enjoying only for a few brief moments.

The fact is Judges by office are leaders. But, are Judges themselves leaders? It is well past time to start leading again.

We are leaders because we can see what works. We experience the conflicts of society on a daily basis. We evaluate credibility every day. We have to understand what the law is in order to apply it appropriately. We preserve the integrity of the rule of law, regardless of the personal criticism generated naturally in an adversarial system of winners and losers.

Please do not claim there is no time. We all have busy dockets. We all have family issues, duties and obligations. We can all manage our level of fun and relaxation when we need it. We are all underpaid and terribly underappreciated in our jurisdictions. The fact is that we can always find the time, effort and resources to do whatever extra we want to do. So, admit it. If you are not that interested, please step aside. If you are committed, then grab an oar. No matter how busy your schedule, when your estranged daughter asks you to help with her wedding plans, you will drop everything else to do so. We always find time to do what we want to do. Your daughter is asking you now!

That being said, I don’t think we need to judge each other’s level of commitment. Some really are dealing with illness, for instance, or other issues that do frustrate their intentions and desires to do more with their lives. Some are always working their backsides raw for AJA or whatever other organizations they belong to, without fanfare or recognition, while others may do so with hopes of upward mobility and more opportunities to direct and serve. So, regardless of the level compared to others, if you are doing 100% of what you can do, hats off to you. We applaud and appreciate any and all efforts. If you are too stressed when asked to help or to participate more or to take up a leadership position, do not be afraid or embarrassed to say, “I would love to, but I cannot right now.” And please, do not let that embarrassment (which you shouldn’t have in the first place) transform you into withdrawal or anger when asked to do more than you can. We have to ask. We need your help. How are you going to know what is needed if you are not asked?

We have some very hardworking, dedicated people in this organization. But, we may be doing something wrong. Maybe we are not good at marketing ourselves. For instance, our  education Committee consistently works hard to get us some of the best Continuing Judicial Education available anywhere. But, why are our conferences so lightly attended? Is it because the same or similar number of required CJE hours can be obtained less expensively elsewhere? We have an extremely scholarly Court Review journal. And, we have a great deal of ongoing effort being spent with the AJA blog. Are Judges reading and finding them useful? What are we doing well? And, what can we do better? What should we jettison?

The hard cruel fact is that in most volunteer organizations that are run by volunteers themselves, the natural dumbing down means that no one wants to put in too much effort and let others reap the glories of their labor. Or, everyone compares their own investment with what they can see from others. Worse, those who are at the helm, steering the organization might be so transfixed with the authority, they fail to entertain, allow or solicit any other ideas for which they will not be able to claim credit or which they cannot still control. In short, apathy rules!

Let’s not let that continue if that has infected us. We are poised to make a great leap forward or to sputter to a miserable end of a splendid run – an organization drowned in complacency, rotting and lifeless. Instead, let’s find a way to re-energize ourselves to serve, to catch a renewed vision. What is the Judicial Branch of Government about anyway? What is its constitutional purpose and function supposed to be? Regardless of our jurisdictional distinctions and labels, we all do the same thing – we resolve disputes by the application of the rule of law, in a forum that affords an opportunity to be heard, with the expectation of equal application of the principles of existing law to all who are similarly situated, with respect, order and preservation of the dignity of everyone.

If you are reading this – as a busy Judge, and not just a critic – I am guessing you are interested in the business of judging, interested enough in the AJA web site to check the blog page, and interested to read this far, I hope. So, interested Judge, what are your thoughts? We need your ideas in Scottsdale and beyond. Even if you cannot attend, find a way to participate with your ideas!

What can AJA do to help you? What can you do to help AJA?[2]


[1] Sorry, I just watched Ben Hur so that image just had to come out on this paper.

[2] Sounds a little like JFK.

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