You may have recognized a judge observing a recent session in your courtroom, and wondered why that judge was there.
“Many professionals, including educators and doctors, are regularly observed by peers or mentors as part of their professional development,” explains Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey. “We’re proud of the excellent judges in our system, and what better way to learn than from the experts, our own colleagues,” she says.
Peer observation can involve one or two judges observing and providing feedback to another judge, and then reversing the observation process. Judges might observe other judges from the same or different court departments. A private discussion between the observer and the observed judge follows the observation, and takes place shortly after the courtroom session.
“We want to make the observation process as manageable and simple as possible, while maintaining its effectiveness,” says Chief Justice Carey.
Attleboro District Court First Justice Daniel O’Shea has participated in peer observation on a number of occasions. He has served on the bench for a combined total of 25 years, as a District Court judge and as a senior administrative judge for the Department of Industrial Accidents.
Judge O’Shea says that as a District Court judge, “You’re confronted every day with complex issues that you have to analyze quickly and fairly, all while moving cases forward.” He compares each day on the bench with “moving sticks of dynamite up a hill” – a task that might not be difficult on its own, but can be “potentially disastrous” if mishandled. “You can’t mindlessly move cases. You have to be careful and handle each case delicately and with great care,” he says.
Judge O’Shea believes that peer observation improves the quality of justice and helps all judges with their professional development. He adds that new judges often find mentors an additional valuable resource for networking and knowledge sharing on procedural issues, while more experienced judges use the peer-to-peer observation program to share their collective experience.
Retired Superior and District Court Judge Paul Chernoff has been asked by a number of judges to do one-day peer observations.
“Obviously I learned a great deal about judging while sitting on the bench for 35 years, yet I could have learned more and been a better judge had I had the benefit of input from a nonjudgmental peer,” says Judge Chernoff, who adds that when he observes a Trial Court judge, he makes a point to interact with courtroom staff in a way that puts them at ease, so that they might understand and welcome being viewed by a peer themselves.
When observing a peer, Judge Chernoff makes sure to explain that he is “not an agent of the administration” and that he reports only to the person he observes. “I give nonjudgmental practical tips and try to assist the judge in a self-evaluation. I always try to find and report to the individual more positives than negatives,” he says.
Judges, like other professionals, are committed to perform their role at the highest possible level, and seek to improve their performance continuously throughout their careers. Peer observation is an invaluable technique to assist judges in meeting these goals.