Very few studies focus on the world and life of trial judges; they still remain largely a mystery to outsiders. COURT REFORM
AND JUDICIAL LEADERSHIP removes a small piece of the veil. It describes the efforts of a New Jersey trial judge, George
Nicola, to improve the administration of justice in his trial court over a period of 20 years. Nicola's first focused on handling
juvenile cases so that those youth who might be deterred from a criminal career were assisted while those who were already
enmeshed in it would be swiftly punished. When Judge Nicola moved to adult criminal court, he established several programs to
speed adjudication of cases including what Wice calls "verticalized case management," holding court in the jail in order to minimize
the expense of moving prisoners to the distant court house, and sentencing those convicted at the same time as they pleaded guilty.
Several years later, Judge Nicola established one of the early "drug court" programs which provided separate tracks for treating
addicts and for imposing swift and severe punishment for those deemed ineligible for treatment.
Wice frames his book with two distinct theoretical perspectives. The first is what he calls the bureaucratic setting of the court and
in the first chapter he spends considerable space reviewing some of the literature on courts as organizations and on bureaucracy in
general. I will return to this below. The second framing perspective is a focus on personal characteristics and leadership styles that
may be associated with successful innovations. Wice also reviews some of this considerable literature and then consistently
returns to this theme in the remainder of the book.
For Wice, Judge Nicola's success hinged on his ability to conceptualize the change process and plan the steps required to achieve
reform, to enlist the collaboration of those who occupied key positions in the social and organizational structure involved, to recruit
appropriate staff, to inspire hard work, and to evaluate and modify the program once it had begun. Wice paints a very flattering
portrait of Judge Nicola and finds that he meets all those standards. It is not, however, a very nuanced or deep psychological
portrait; it resembles an official account of the judge's accomplishments more than a clinical explanation of Nicola's personal and
public struggles to achieve his goals. The book is written in Wice's words; Nicola's voice rarely breaks through either in quotations
from interviews or from the written record.
Although Wice's focus on a trial judge is welcome, his book is disappointing in several important aspects. His first framing
perspective -- courts as bureaucracies that are difficult to change -- is, I believe misplaced. He quotes Robert Merton in defining
what he means by bureaucracy: "rules, disciplines, a graded career" (p. 14), without exploring whether such elements in fact
characterize trial courts. In my experience, they do not. Trial courts are surely organizations but they have distinctive features
which need to be recognized in any account of their work. They do not ordinarily recruit their judges;
they have little control over their workloads; they often have only an attenuated hierarchy; they can offer few incentives to elicit
high productivity and can threaten few sanctions to discipline laggards. They exist in many varieties. Moreover, Wice neglects
some of the most powerful studies of trial courts, especially those published in recent years by James Eisenstein, Peter Nardulli,
and Roy B. Flemming even though they studied criminal courts of comparable size to the New Jersey court where Judge Nicola
Despite his interest in bureaucracy, Wice provides us very little information about the organizational context in which Judge Nicola
worked. Several times in the book, Wice mentions the Administrative Office of the Courts in New Jersey without describing its
very considerable powers. Indeed, Judge Nicola's last reform, the drug court, was undone by the AOC. Wice simply reports the
results without exploring the dynamics of that power struggle. Likewise, Wice tells us very little about the organization of the
Middlesex Superior Court. We learn near the end of the book (p. 173) that it has 20 judges, one-third of whom work on criminal
matters. In the epilogue, we find that it is possible for judges to be transferred to other counties. Wice tells us little about the
politics of obtaining a judgeship, securing desirable assignments, and assuring reappointment to the bench at the end of a judge's
term. We learn little about the kind of hierarchy that exists and what assistance or resistance it provides for judges who, like
Nicola, seek to innovate. We do not know how interactions with other judges support or inhibit a judge like Nicola.
COURT REFORM AND JUDICIAL LEADERSHIP demonstrates that there are many important questions that need to be
researched before we can claim to understand how trial courts operate in the United States. Like others before him, Paul Wice
shows that such courts can be penetrated, and in his case apparently without large research funding. It is a subject still waiting to
be fully explored.
Eisenstein, James, Roy B. Flemming and Peter Nardulli. 1987. THE CONTOURS OF JUSTICE: COMMUNITIES AND THEIR
COURTS. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.
Flemming, Roy B., Peter F. Nardulli and James Eisenstein. 1992. THE CRAFT OF JUSTICE: POLITICS AND WORK IN
CRIMINAL COURT COMMUNITIES. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Peter F. Nardulli, Roy B. Flemming and James Eisenstein. 1988. THE TENOR OF JUSTICE. Urbana: University of Illinois