Third District Judge Pat Brian sees scores of lawyers each week as he presides over murder trials, drug charges and a host of other legal matters in his West Valley courtroom.
That is thousands of miles and culturally a world away from Shanghai, China.
But for the last five years, Brian has spent a month at the prestigious Fudan University where he has been invited to teach Chinese students about the American rule of law. He and his wife, Sherry Hale Brian, say they are more than happy to keep going back as long as the university wants them.
"These students are the brightest China has to offer," Brian said. "They are extremely enthusiastic."
So much so that when Brian first began lecturing, he addressed a class of 30 students. Word spread and classroom attendance ballooned.
By the end of the term, the lecture hall was packed, and other students stood at least 10 deep outside eight open windows, straining to hear him.
Although China's government is still profoundly different from governments in the West, the Chinese people are open to new ideas.
"I think there is a wind blowing through China that signals a change in so many ways," Brian said. "Things like judicial reform, opening up their courts, human rights and the things we see in our Bill of Rights are really being addressed."
The Brians travel to Shanghai at their own expense each fall, and the judge uses his vacation days for the teaching stint.
Chinese students are required to be fluent in English, so language is not a problem. Those who are accepted at Fudan University have prepared all their lives for admission to the coveted school, and they embrace any opportunity to learn and grow, Brian said.
What an America judge can offer is insight into a completely different legal system and firsthand information about how the courts work and how the law is applied.
Brian said the Chinese are fascinated by such American concepts as the presumption of innocence, the requirement that everyone has a right to an attorney, the idea that the burden of proof rests with the prosecutors, and that an individual has a right to a speedy trial — and a trial by jury.
"They are quite skeptical of the jury system," he said.
Brian's wife, Sherry, is an integral part of the entire trip. Until last year, she informally taught "oral advocacy," or how to present oneself in the courtroom. Then last year, she was invited to teach in an official capacity and has been instructing students in how to stand and move with confidence, speak up and look people in the eye — a concept that is difficult for the reserved Chinese.
Sherry Brian is well suited to the task: Her parents, Ruth and Nathan Hale, pioneered the theaters carrying their name, with the first begun in 1947 in Glendale, Calif. "It was the family lifestyle. I started acting when I was 4 — we all did," Sherry Brian said. "I learned from experience."
She said her husband's law instruction and her help with presentation gives the students confidence, whether they are taking part in school competitions or actually going into court.
"A courtroom is a theater once you get to the trial stage, except it's not make-believe."
While in China, the Brians live in spartan student housing on a campus that is 20 minutes from Shanghai and are the only non-Asian people in the area. The couple eats rice three times a day and does without Western comforts — but they wouldn't have it any other way.
"We have fallen in love with China and the Chinese people," Pat Brian said. "In spite of what anybody will tell you, they are extremely enthused about the United States, about our clothing, our values, our freedoms, our constitutional government."
One sign of the trust placed in the Brians was the fact that they were asked to coach the school's national moot court team. Their input made a difference: a team they coached won first place in China and also did well at the Jessup International Moot Court Competition in Washington, D.C.
Today, the Brians have made lifelong friends in China, and Pat Brian, upon retirement, will be made an honorary member of the Shanghai Arbitration Commission, the only non-Chinese individual to be included.
Over the years, the Brians have kept in touch with several students and are delighted to see them progress. One especially promising young woman currently is attending school in Ames, Iowa, and she and the Brians talk on the phone or e-mail each other often.
The judge isn't under any illusions that he and his wife will remake the Chinese way of justice, but each time they visit and teach, they feel they're making an impact.
"We're not changing 1 billion 300 million people, but we've worked with people who will be the movers and shakers," Pat Brian said. "They understand that if China is to be a world player, they've got to abide by the rules the world plays by. Every time my wife and I go there, we see change for the better."