International Students Experience U.S. Judicial System Through Programs with State and Federal Judges

Too often law students from abroad experience the U.S. justice system only through readings and classroom discussion. Seeing it come alive, much less rolling up one’s sleeves and becoming immersed in the process, is a rarity. The Judicial Experiential Learning Programs at Washington University School of Law, which offer international students a bird’s-eye view of the courts, as well as the chance to meet and work directly with judges, are among only a few in the country.

Students who earned their first law degree abroad and are enrolled in the LLM in U.S. Law or LLM in Intellectual Property & Technology Law—or who participate in one of the school’s many international exchange agreements—are eligible for two such programs at Washington University. These experiential judicial learning programs are designed to build upon the Introduction to U.S. Law & Methods I course, which introduces distinctive aspects of the U.S. system with an emphasis on state courts and common law, and to complement the Introduction to U.S. Law & Methods II course, which acquaints foreign lawyers with federal court adjudication and U.S. federalism.

In Program I, students are assigned to a state judge for seven weeks and spend 30 hours in his or her courtroom, observing and assisting with the court’s workload as appropriate. As part of the process, the students observe and write reports on several different types of proceedings: arraignment, pre-trial motions, jury selection, jury and bench trials, probation revocation, bankruptcy, and appellate hearings.

Program II is composed of five sessions at the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse, where students observe various judicial proceedings, have the opportunity to discuss them with the court personnel involved, and conduct a personal interview with a federal judge. 

Students in the programs during the spring semester hailed from China, France, Iran , Italy, and Australia, and a number previously had worked as attorneys in their home countries.

“While we had all heard about judicial proceedings, the program allowed us to go to the courts and actually see and experience them,” says recent LLM graduate Christope Fafet, a native of Paris and a graduate of the University of Cergy-Pontoise, who participated Program II this year.

The success of the judicial learning programs relies heavily upon the law school’s longstanding relationships with St. Louis area judges. For example, Judge David Mason, JD ’83, has been mentoring Washington University LLM students for more than a decade, most recently working with Program I students.

Judge C. Perry and Washington University School of Law LLM students

Each session, he has two students assigned to his courtroom in the 22nd Judicial Circuit, presently the 30th Division Family Court, and allows them to get as involved as their time and ambition permit. Some observe. Some research motions. Some help write opinions. Nearly all learn to appreciate that power in the U.S. system of justice is shared, rather than concentrated in the hands of the few.

“Some have been surprised at the power that juries can be given,” Mason recalls. “A number of students also have been surprised by the independence we judges have. They come to realize that the secret to maintaining democracy is that power is far more dispersed than even many Americans realize.”

Mason is one of nearly two dozen judges who volunteer for the program at the state and federal level, says Leigh Hunt Greenhaw, senior lecturer in law, who has coordinated the program for a number of years.

“I am so impressed with the goodwill shown by our area judges,” she observes. “Without public credit, monetary compensation, or gaining professional advantage, they do this for our students and to promote global legal education.”

Despite fundamental differences between the judicial systems of their home countries and that of the U.S., students in the program say they gain valuable insights to take back to their native lands. Recent LLM graduate Yiqi Wang, who holds a bachelor of laws degree from Sichuan University, was assigned to family court in St. Louis City with Judge Paula Bryant and plans to return to China with a more compassionate view of law.

“I knew almost nothing about family law, but later found out that it is quite interesting since it deals with the normal, yet most intimate, human relationships,” says Wang, who participated in Program I. “In my own view, China’s judicial system sacrifices justice to gain efficiency. The elaborately designed framework of proceedings in the U.S. judicial system to achieve the balance between justice and efficiency can be a precious treasure.”

Xi Wang, an exchange student from Fudan University in Shanghai who participated in Program II, was surprised by the level of judicial transparency that allows the public to follow proceedings. She added that the opportunity to be involved in the program was just one aspect of Washington University’s career-based approach for foreign students that she appreciated. “Washington University really pays attention to students’ career planning,” she says. “It offers students lots of opportunities for internships, which is also attractive to me.”

The students, though, aren’t the only ones learning. Mason noted that he recently was assigned a student from Japan, where the juvenile justice system includes young adults to age 21.

“We talked about how judges in Japan have more room to work with kids and are more involved with wraparound services,” Mason says. “I like that standard and hope to apply some of that kind of thinking.”

Fafet took his experience beyond observation to discuss the differences in the U.S. and French judicial systems with Senior U.S. District Judge Jean Hamilton, JD ’71. The talk, which he says transcended the student and teacher relationship, will be his fondest memory of the program. “More than a mere personal interview,” he says, “it was a genuine exchange of knowledge between two lovers of the law.”

2013–14 Judicial Experiential Learning Programs Judges – Program I 

  • The Hon. Paula P. Bryant, Judge, 22nd Judicial Circuit, Missouri  
  • The Hon. Robert H. Dierker, Jr., Judge, 22nd Judicial Circuit, Missouri  
  • The Hon. Jean C. Hamilton, JD ’71, Senior Judge, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri
  • The Hon. David C. Mason, JD ’83, Judge, 22nd Judicial Circuit, Missouri
  • The Hon. Mark H. Neill, Judge, 22nd Judicial Circuit, Missouri
  • The Hon. David D. Noce, Magistrate Judge, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri
  • The Hon. Steve Ohmer, Judge, 22nd Judicial Circuit, Missouri
  • The Hon. Catherine D. Perry, JD ’80, Chief Judge, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri
  • The Hon. Edward Sweeney, Judge, 22nd Judicial Circuit, Missouri
  • Administrator M. Kiethly Williams, Judge, Drug Court, 22nd Judicial Circuit, Missouri

2013–14 Judicial Experiential Learning Programs Judges – Program II 

  • The Hon. Terry I. Adelman, Magistrate Judge, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri
  • The Hon. Henry E. Autrey, Judge, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri
  • The Hon. Nannette A. Baker, Magistrate Judge, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri
  • The Hon. Audrey G. Fleissig, JD ’80, Judge, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri
  • The Hon. Jean C. Hamilton, JD ’71, Senior Judge, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri
  • The Hon. Shirley Padmore Mensah, JD ’95, Magistrate Judge, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri
  • The Hon. Thomas C. Mummert, III, Chief Magistrate Judge, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri
  • The Hon. David D. Noce, Magistrate Judge, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri
  • The Hon. Catherine D. Perry, JD ’80, Chief Judge, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri
  • The Hon. John A. Ross, Judge, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri
  • The Hon. Charles A. Shaw, Senior Judge, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri
  • The Hon. E. Richard Webber, Senior Judge, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri

Kathleen Nelson, Summer 2014