Over winter intersession, I had the privilege of spending a week shadowing the Hon. Alberto Rivas ‘82 in his capacity as a presiding judge in the Superior Court of New Jersey. During this time, I gained an invaluable insight into the operation of the criminal justice system, with its many perspectives and challenges.
When shadowing Judge Rivas, our routine was to sit at the front of the courtroom and watch the many different types of hearings he presided over. We saw a full scope of the criminal justice process, from detention hearings to sentencing hearings.
After the flurry of hearings on the first day, I was overwhelmed by a vast and complex prescribed set of legal terms and processes that I was unfamiliar with. My fellow intern and I scribbled pages full of notes, questions and comments that Judge Rivas patiently and enthusiastically addressed between sessions. When we left the court at the end of each day, we would continue excitedly discussing and debating what we had seen until we got back to campus.
Later on, in the week, Judge Rivas arranged for us to sit in on trials in other courtrooms. We learned not just about how a trial proceeds formally, but also about the more implicit agendas and strategies at play. We had the privilege to witness the proceedings with and without the jury’s presence and to speak with professionals such as law clerks, attorneys and judges to gain a complete insight into the situation.
As we watched more of Judge Rivas’ hearings, our questions began to change. We had the rare chance to sit with Judge Rivas after a hearing and learn about his perspective as an authority on the law, asking questions such as, “What made you decide on this particular sentence?” and “What evidence was most pertinent to you for making your decision?” It was fascinating to be able to analyze Judge Rivas’ rulings with him; rulings informed by decades of work in the legal system and a holistic analysis of the situation from many perspectives (the defendant, the defense, the prosecution, the public, his peers and colleagues.) I was amazed at the scope of information that Judge Rivas must consider before making a ruling for which he alone shoulders a great deal of responsibility.In light of this, I came to admire Judge Rivas for his enduring dedication to empathy, fairness and rehabilitation, when he is often subject (as all judges are) to a great deal of criticism in the media for unpopular yet just rulings.
We were lucky enough also to see the newly instated criminal justice reform in action, whereby defendants are scored based on their risk of reoffending upon release from detention. These scores are designed to indicate the conditions under which a defendant could be released pending further proceedings. One of the things I learned from speaking to Judge Rivas is how the law and judicial system is not as concrete as I once thought, and it is constantly open to revision, refinement and replacement.
Overall I had a wonderful experience with Judge Rivas and his chamber team. I learned and reflected a lot about the legal system but also about the essential skills of impartial, logical thought and strong decision making. I am very grateful for these experiences and for the friends and mentors I made at the Superior Court.