Right in Reno’s Backyard—The Harvard of Judicial Colleges

by Corrine Casanova

If you needed to get your appendix out, would you trust a doctor that had no surgical training to remove it? Chances are, probably not. Interestingly enough, most judges receive no specialized education or formalized training about the judicial role prior to either being elected or appointed as a judge. As someone whose role is chief impartial decision-maker, this can be daunting.

Back in the 1950’s, the American Bar Association (ABA) decided a complete study of the American justice system was in order. In 1961, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clark, held hearings across the country to discuss improvements in the delivery of legal services and conduct of judicial matters. In 1963, he presented his findings at the ABA’s annual meeting. He wrote, “Two years ago, the use of the word ‘education’ in connection with the judiciary brought raised eyebrows and the shaking of heads. There was a fear that if judges admitted a need for seminars they would be confessing inadequacy. Today…the skittishness against the tag ‘education’ has been converted into genuine enthusiasm for more knowledge in judicial administration through continuing education.”


As a result, the National Judicial College (NJC) was born in 1964, originally named the National College of State Trial Judges. Soon, 83 judges from 47 states met, studied and collaborated for four weeks. One of those participants was Judge Thomas Craven of Reno. He urged the Max C. Fleischmann Foundation to provide funding to the College. They did and soon the College found its home on the University Nevada, Reno (UNR) campus although it is not part of the University System. In 1971, the Judicial College Building, was built and became the permanent home to the NJC.

Today, the NJC is considered to be the premier judicial education program in the United States. Their mission is simple: Making the world a more just place for all.

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FAST FACTS on the National Judicial College:

  • Founded in 1963 by the American Bar Association
  • Moved to the University of Nevada, Reno campus in 1964
  • Became a Nevada nonprofit 501(c)(3) in 1978
  • Governed by a national 21-member board of trustees
  • Annually educate between 7,500 and 10,000 judges through in-person and online courses
  • The 200 voluntary faculty members contribute $1.4 million annually in volunteer instruction
  • Between 2011 and 2017, awarded $2 million in scholarships
  • Home to The National Judicial Center, which educates tribal court personnel

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The face, President and CEO of NJC is Benes Z. Aldana. He officially began his tenure in May 2017 and is the first Asian Pacific (Filipino) American chief trial judge in U.S. military history. He is also the first military judge to lead NJC. He was immediately impressed with how easy it was to meet with Nevada’s political dignitaries including Governor Sandoval and then Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid. But what surprised him the most was that most people didn’t know that the NJC had been in Reno for over 50 years or worst yet, that it even existed. He knew something needed to change.

During the first six months of his presidency, Aldana’s focus was on creating the 2017-2022 Strategic Plan by consulting with stakeholders both within and outside the NJC. “My primary role is to take the college into the next few years in terms of strategic priorities. I wanted to make sure that our path is clear and we have a roadmap moving forward,” Aldana said. Each of the following five priorities have detailed goals, objectives and deliverables. Specific senior leadership team members are responsible for keeping progress on track.

Priority 1: ACADEMICS. Maintain Leadership in Academic Excellence

Priority 2: FINANCES. Achieve Long-Term Financial Sustainability and Institutional Resilience

Priority 3: PUBLIC AWARENESS. Raise the Public Profile of the NJC and Build its Brand

Priority 4: HUMAN RESOURCES. Develop and Sustain a High-Performance Team of Professionals and Volunteer Leadership

Priority 5: STRATEGIC ALLIANCES. Strengthen Our Strategic Alliances and Partnerships

“We have a great team. To get a strategic plan completed in six months without a consultant is really amazing. Our talented team is championing the plan, engaging our stakeholders, our trustees and getting a sense of where we want to go. We got this done by December 2017. Now we are implementing our action plan. We are excited,” said Aldana.

There are specialty courses for both new and experienced judges in their more than 100 course offerings. To help educate new judges, the NJC offers four one week intensive courses:

  • General Jurisdiction (for state judges)
  • Special Court Jurisdiction (for specialized state court judges)
  • Administrative Law: Fair Hearing (administrative adjudicators)
  • Essential Skills for Tribal Court Judges (tribal court judges)

Judges often hear gruesome criminal cases where they suffer vicarious trauma. Unlike most people in the workforce, they aren’t able to go home and talk about what happened with their family. After attending the new judge course, they now are able to build a network of peers and form lifelong friendships where they are free to share their different perspectives.

The NJC faculty is all volunteer and are a diverse group by design. Potential faculty members are invited to attend a weeklong faculty development workshop. The NJC Communications/Marketing Director, Ed Cohen shared, “For our judges, it is a great honor to be a judge and to teach other judges. After being in the weeklong workshop and passing the exam, they become official faculty members only after they are critiqued by the students. If don’t get high marks when they teach, they aren’t invited back. If their ratings are high, we keep them on as faculty members.”

What’s up and coming? In 2019, the NJC hopes to launch a judicial academy for lawyers. Aldana envisions this academy to be like a weeklong boot camp for lawyers considering either running or being appointed as a judge. It would be on a selective basis and scholarships would be available for those in underrepresented groups.

With this new strategic plan, the NJC is living up to its mission, it is doing all it can to make the world a more just place for all. If you would like to learn more about the NJC, call 775-784-6747 or go to judges.org. You may also sign up for their monthly newsletter, Judicial Edge.

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