By Hon. Jennifer Hopens
Texas Department of Insurance, Division of Workers’ Compensation
Hon. Sharon Reeves
Georgia State Board of Workers’ Compensation
As in years past, the 2023 NAWCJ Judiciary College in Orlando did not disappoint. We enjoyed every presentation we attended, but, in the spirit of (judicial) economy, we will focus this paper on selected presentations over the course of the event. What follows is just a sample of the excellent programming and content you can expect from NAWCJ.
Michael Jones, “Courtroom Safety and Active Shooter Training”
Mr. Jones, president of Major Security Consulting & Design, has a long and distinguished background in law enforcement. He led a sobering and thought-provoking discussion about personal safety in light of the frightening phenomenon of active shooters. He stated that there have been over 2,000 incidents in the U.S. so far this year involving active shooters, and the shootings typically last from 5-8 minutes. The stark reality: a shooting can happen anywhere people gather, including the courtroom.
Mr. Jones discussed characteristics of active shooters, including those who hold longstanding grudges and are unable to connect with life, as well as triggering events for the active shooter, such as performance evaluations.
Among the tips shared by Mr. Jones for the audience: don’t ignore the signs, have an emergency plan, be familiar with your surroundings, and develop a survivor’s mindset.
While no one knows how they will react in the moment, Mr. Jones provided practical and useful tools and insight on this subject, which, unfortunately, has become an all-too common reality.
Hon. Ferrell Newman, “The Noble Quest: Writing the Workers’ Compensation Opinion from Draftsmanship to Craftsmanship”
Judge Newman, who serves as a commissioner of the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission, spoke on legal writing with frequent doses of self-deprecating humor thrown in for good measure (illustrating the notorious Dunning-Kruger Effect – “ignorance does not recognize itself” – by recounting an amusing personal anecdote about his underwhelmed reaction to seeing the Mona Lisa in person at the Louvre in Paris – don’t worry, he would come around and appreciate it later).
Moving on from art criticism, Judge Newman’s presentation delved into characteristics of good legal writing:
- fairly informs (includes every fact and every law that’s critical to your decision and why you ruled against a particular party)
- persuasively communicates
- avoids unintended messages
- identifies your audience (the “stranger to the case”)
- embraces indecision (“when writing, don’t view through the lens of your judgment”)
- identifies the issue
Judge Newman also laid out some fictions of legal writing for judges:
- we write to avoid reversal (no, we write to explain)
- we are the truth finders (it’s not our job!)
- rectitude is persuasive
Judge Newman extolled the benefits of having your work reviewed by another set of eyes (“hug your proofreader!”), as well the benefits of walking as a way to bolster the creative process.
Want to improve your writing? Judge Newman suggested the following: read good writing; simplify; and recognize what you don’t know (the last being the opposite of the Dunning-Kruger Effect).
Judge Newman’s engaging and informative presentation will not soon be forgotten by the audience.
Dr. Joyce Lacy “silver bullet,” “The Science of Memory: Assessing Witness Credibility”
College attendees next received an eye-opening lesson in neuroscience from Dr. Lacy, who serves as a clinical associate professor at the University of Buffalo. She provided an overview of long-term memory, short-term memory, and sensory memory, along with a discussion of the process of encoding, storage, and retrieval of memories. Errors in memory, we learned, can happen at any time in the process.
As an exercise, Dr. Lacy posed 15 words – many health-related – for the audience to remember and write down later. A number of audience members remembered “doctor” being on the list, but it wasn’t (illustrating the phenomenon of “false memory” and how our minds often “fill in the blanks”).
Key takeaways for the audience: the relationship between confidence and accuracy is complicated, and memories (and levels of confidence) can change. As a practical matter, what does this mean to a judge in assessing the reliability of a witness’s memory of a particular event? Dr. Lacy acknowledged that there is no “silver bullet”, but a good practice is to have a “healthy” level of skepticism – our memories are fallible, but we shouldn’t regard all memories as inaccurate.
The pearl for adjudicators: while an inconsistency in a witness’s memory may call into question the credibility of their account, there may also be reasons for such an inconsistency. As with anything, judges should keep an open mind in evaluating the evidence before them, including witness testimony.
Angela White-Bazile, “Managing Stress in a High-Stress World”
Ms. White-Bazile, who serves as the executive director of the Louisiana Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program, highlighted the importance of self-care in managing the stressful demands of our personal and professional lives and avoiding burnout. As we know, judges are not immune to these pressures.
“Self-care,” she said, “is self-preservation.”
Ms. White-Bazile provided a non-exhaustive list of suggested strategies for alleviating stress, including
- eating right
- prioritize rest and getting at least 8 hours of sleep each night
- make lists of things that make you happy
- set boundaries with others
- detach from phones
- practice mindfulness and gratitude toward others
- be around optimistic people
- run away from negativity
- embrace positivity
To combat burnout, she provided the following suggestions:
- learn how to breathe
- focus on authenticity rather than perfection
- acknowledge that having a bad day is ok, and making mistakes is a part of life
- don’t be afraid to ask for help
The list goes on! As we all know, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. You have to find a strategy that works best for you.
And, Ms. White-Bazile certainly gave us all plenty of food for thought on this very important subject.
Our hats off to Judge Shannon Bruno Bishop of Louisiana, the NAWCJ Conference Committee Chair, and Judge Timothy W. Conner of Tennessee, the NAWCJ Curriculum Committee Chair, and their committee members for all of their efforts in support of another successful College program.