Virginia Norton hadn’t served a day as a Circuit Court judge yet, but was already looking for a way to be better.
The day after being elected in 2008, Norton called the University of Virginia School of Law about a post-graduate program for judges. However, it had been defunded by state lawmakers.
So, Norton went about learning to be a judge through on-the-job training and with help from her peers.
Several years later, Circuit Judge Kevin Blazs told her about a Master of Laws of Judicial Studies (LL.M.) program at Duke University School of Law. (He is pursuing a legal Ph.D. there.)
It would be an opportunity for Norton to learn from an excellent faculty and from classmates who are judges at different levels from around the world.
But she didn’t think she had a chance at getting into the prestigious program, for which 20 were chosen.
When Norton told then-Chief Judge Don Moran she was going to apply, she said, “You probably don’t have to worry about me getting in.”
Boy, was she wrong.
Not only did Norton get in, her classmates elected her to the board of editors for Judicature magazine and she is editor-in-chief of the August edition of the quarterly publication.
The director of the Center for Judicial Studies said Norton’s “people skills are off the charts.”
A classmate described her as thoughtful, intelligent and “a breath of fresh air.”
Commencement this weekend was bittersweet for Norton.
She loved being in a classroom, but loves the courtroom more.
She enjoyed being a student, but thrives on being a judge.
She gained a new set of lifetime friends at Duke, but has a debt of gratitude for her colleagues at home.
Getting into prestigious program
Before Norton applied for the Duke program, she sought advice from many people.
Blazs encouraged her to apply, as did Susan Black, a senior judge with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.
Black teaches at Duke each fall and said she knows the program’s faculty members are excellent.
She also knows two judges who went through the program in the class before Norton’s. One of them, a U.S. District judge in Nevada, said the quality of the faculty was A-plus.
The caveat, Black said, is the program is time consuming. It is two years long, including spending a month on campus each year.
“Of course, no one’s at home doing your work for you,” said Black, who earned an LL.M. in 1984. “You have to decide if it’s worth working weekends and longer hours.”
It wasn’t the first time Black had talked with Norton about her career. They have known each other since Norton was a young lawyer.
They’ve talked about Norton’s goals and career, including her pursuit of becoming a judge, as well as personal things.
She considers Norton, 44, a friend. “A young friend,” Black, 72, said, with a laugh.
One of the attractions of the program is the cross section of judges in the class, Black said. A strong mix of state and federal jurists from trial and appellate courts from around the world.
John Rabiej, director of the Center for Judicial Studies at Duke, said it is “very, very difficult to get in” the program.
The value of the program is immense, Rabiej said.
“Every judge impacts thousands of people. If we can improve that judge’s ability to do their job, that will make a difference,” he said of the program funded by The Duke Endowment.
The judges in Norton’s class hailed from West Palm Beach to Montana and from Jamaica to Germany.
Black was especially pleased that a peer — Judge Johnnie Rawlinson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in Nevada — was in the same class as Norton.
“It’s a small world,” Black said.
Making lifelong friends
That small world originated in the back row of class, where Rawlinson said she, Norton and a third student bonded early.
Rawlinson said she was impressed by Norton’s thoughtful approach to resolving cases.
“I thought she showed a lot of compassion for people that come before her,” she said.
Rawlinson said people often make snap judgments based on what a person looks like. “She is a beautiful woman who dresses flawlessly,” she said of Norton.
Beneath that, though, is a smart, capable, compassionate judge, Rawlinson said.
And a caring person. When Rawlinson’s youngest grandson, Malachi, was born in May 2015, she left Duke for a weekend to spend time with her daughter and the baby.
When she returned, Norton gave her a gift basket of books and clothes for her grandson.
“She is just a delightful person and one of the real bonuses of the program,” Rawlinson said.
Norton found a lot of bonuses, as well.
Getting help at Duke and at home
She was impressed by the collegiality of her classmates, as well as the diversity.
It was interesting to compare the judges’ duties, based on what type of court they oversaw and what part of the world they worked in.
For example, in Germany — where Norton’s roommate was from — there are no jury trials. Her roommate was fascinated by the jury trial system. Norton estimates she has presided over about 100 jury trials.
Also, trial and appellate judges have very different jobs. Several had not sentenced people to prison, Norton said.
The intellectual stimulation from her classmates, most of whom had more experience than Norton, and from the faculty was energizing.
In addition to legal topics, the class studied statistics and economics at the Fuqua School of Business. “That really, really helped me,” she said.
Very few judges get the luxury in the middle of their careers to study with pre-eminent scholars, she said, as well as two U.S. Supreme Court justices who taught there — Samuel Alito and the late Antonin Scalia.
Norton realizes her colleagues in Duval County helped make it possible, especially Circuit Judge Karen Cole.
During both times Norton spent a month at Duke, she said Cole told her, “If something happens here, I’ll take care of it.”
She also appreciates Chief Judge Mark Mahon giving her the go-ahead to take part in the program after she was accepted.
Norton is grateful that Duke paid the expenses related to the program, which she estimates at about $70,000.
She’s appreciative of the support of her parents, Ray and Gloria, and brother, Hamilton, who were there to see her graduate.
And Norton realized something about herself.
She always knew how much she loved being a judge. But even more so now.