International Judicial Monitor
Published by the International judicial Academy of the International Law Institute, Washington, D.C.
with circulation assistance from the American Society of International Law

Winter 2018 Issue



Judge John Worth Kern III: A Remembrance

John W. Kern III
By: James G. Apple, Editor-in-Chief, International Judicial Monitor

Judge John W. Kern III of the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia, was a long time personal friend and colleague. He retired from the bench several years ago. He died on January 30, 2018 at his home in Arlington, Virginia at the age of 89. I was asked to make some remarks at his memorial service in March at the Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C. These remarks appear below.

Judge John W. Kern III was a great and good man. His character traits exhibited in his “mission,” in the words of a colleague, were “devotion, perseverance, energy, care, tact, intelligence and humanity,” traits for which he will always be a model. To those I would add honesty, kindness, and generosity. These traits recommended him to many persons throughout his life. It was my privilege to know him as friend and colleague from the time we first met in 1991, which was one year after I joined the senior staff of the Federal Judicial Center.

He told me of his plans for a new kind of educational seminar for judges at Princeton University. We spent many days after that, usually meeting weekly at the Station Grill in Union Station for lunch, to plan and conduct judges seminars in which we were both involved over a period of 25 years.  I will speak briefly about these seminars in a few moments. But I first must make some observations about Judge Kern.

I recently had the experience of hearing a speech by the incoming President of the University of Virginia, who gave a presentation to the graduating class of the Harvard Graduate School of Education during his tenure there as dean. President-elect James Ryan told the members of the graduating class that there are five questions that a person should ask himself or herself during the course of a lifetime. Time will not permit me to cover these five questions. However President-elect Ryan stated that the five questions he posed led to a sixth and final question that a person should ask toward the end of life. That question is: “Did you get what you wanted out of life?”

When I heard those remarks, I thought of Judge Kern and how he would respond to that question in the eighth decade of his life. I concluded that he would have answered that question with a hearty “Yes.” I thought that Judge Kern would answer the question in the affirmative because of the accomplishments of his life, how he followed a politically prominent grandfather and a politically prominent father, and went beyond their accomplishments. Judge Kern, after Harvard Law School, chose public service as his career, and he went on to hold prominent positions in the U.S. Justice Department, and then as a judge on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. During his tenure on that court he was evaluated as “exceptionally well qualified” by the District of Columbia Judicial Disabilities and Tenure Commission.

But Judge Kern could answer the question posed above even more affirmatively in looking back at the second half of his life, when he became a leader and founder of a new and important kind of seminar and educational program for judges. As noted before I met Judge Kern at the Federal Judicial Center in 1991 when he was in the process of creating the first seminar on the humanities and science at his alma mater, Princeton University, which later became the Harold R. Medina Seminar for State and Federal Judges on the Humanities and Science. It was named after Judge Harold R. Medina of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, also a Princeton graduate. The Seminar eventually became the Kern-Medina Seminar for State and Federal Judges on the Humanities and Science in honor and recognition of Judge Kern’s leadership in the founding and direction of the seminar over a period of more than 25 years. These and other seminars were conducted under the name of the non-profit organization that he created, with assistance from colleagues, the Judiciary Leadership Development Council.

The Kern-Medina Seminar explored new areas of judicial education by emphasizing in a five day program presentations on science and the humanities. Rather than the subjects covered in traditional judicial seminars, such as the law of evidence, or how to organize a judge’s chambers, the Kern-Medina Seminar emphasized in its selection of topics such non-traditional subjects as biology, history, physics and astronomy, literature, political science, philosophy, and genetics. Many judges attending the Seminar proclaimed that it was one of the best judicial education programs they ever attended.

Judge Kern’s idea for this seminar came out of his experience as Dean of the National Judicial College in Reno, Nevada, a new educational institution devoted to the teaching of state judges throughout the United States. His tenure there was three years. He later explained to an acquaintance at Princeton, Dr. Carol Rigolot, who was to become an important supporter of the seminar, in their first meeting: “You might imagine that judges sit around thinking about truth, justice and the American way, but actually they spend their days looking at scruffy drug dealers and wondering how long to sentence them. The burn-out rate is enormous.” And this was an observation made in the context of a professional life (judges) that was and is essentially lonely.

Judge Kern recognized that judges could benefit both intellectually, spiritually and professionally through exposure to these other areas of learning. He designed and developed the Medina Seminar “to provide intellectual refreshment for judges,” and “to acquaint judges with areas of learning to broaden their intellectual horizons.”

It soon became apparent that the kinds of subjects taught at the Kern-Medina Seminar were specific kinds of subjects that judges needed to know about in the rapidly changing world.  These subjects were designed to provoke listeners to ask themselves whether judicial precedent had to be changed according to new cultural and scientific developments.

Journalist and commentator Thomas Friedman, in his book Thank You for Being Late, commented that “the only way you will understand the changing nature of geopolitics today is if you meld what is happening in computing with what is happening in telecommunications with what is happening in the environment with what is happening in globalization with what is happening in demographics. There is no other way today to develop a fully rounded picture.”  Judges live in this new geopolitical world. They need a “full rounded picture” of the world. This increasingly interconnectedness of bodies of knowledge creates new demands on education, including judicial education. Judges must be exposed to these subjects and their interconnectedness so they can determine if and how their decisions will affect the judiciary and the legal system under which they operate. Otherwise the judicial branch may not remain a relevant part of government.

The ideas of Judge Kern relating to judicial education actually reflect suggestions of them contained in a commentary by Justice Benjamin Cardozo of the Supreme Court of the United States, when he turned a series of four lectures at Yale Law School in 1921 into a small volume titled The Nature of the Judicial Process. In this small volume he expressed the idea that judicial process requires judges, at times in preparing legal opinions, to make reference to other areas of learning and inquiry. The Justice analyzed the judicial process by examining four approaches to judging: the method of philosophy, the method of history, the method of tradition, and the method of sociology.

Judge Kern carried his ideas for this new judicial education approach to other kinds of seminar, programs that dealt with only science issues, and later to seminars and programs that dealt with international courts and international law, through another organization with which he was affiliated, the International Judicial Academy. He was able, with assistance from colleagues, to carry them forward over a 25+ year period, until the organizations and persons which had assisted his efforts ended their financial support. Fortunately other organizations have picked up on these new trends in one form or another and through them Judge Kern’s legacy has been confirmed and maintained. Hopefully full expression of his ideas will someday be restored with renewed financial support.

While all of us, especially his wife Peggie, mourn the passing of Judge Kern we can be comforted by the fact that as noted earlier, had he have been confronted with the question posed earlier in these remarks, “did you get what you wanted out of life?” he could have and would have undoubtedly responded with a resounding “yes.”

Judge Kern was in the forefront of reform in judicial education. A U.S. federal judge once remarked that “judicial reform is not an activity to be engaged in by the faint-hearted.” Judge Kern was not faint-hearted. He persevered in his vision to his great credit. I have some pride that I was able to march by his side during part of his journey through life.

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© 2018 – The International Judicial Academy
with assistance from the American Society of International Law.

Editor: James G. Apple.
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