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Thanks to a rich tradition of faculty and alumni serving in the judiciary, Columbia Law School students have an opportunity to learn from some of the nation's most distinguished judges

By Carrie Johnson

Winter 2010

Before Sonia Sotomayor took her seat this fall as the nation’s first Latina member of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Bronx native spent several years teaching Columbia Law School students the ins and outs of appellate court practice.

Beginning in 2000, the Manhattan-based federal court judge poured her substantial energy into developing a course for aspiring appellate lawyers, personally selecting as many as a dozen students each semester to participate in a prestigious externship class at the Law School.

Sotomayor handpicked a diverse group of guest speakers ranging from a former solicitor general to young public defenders and solo practitioners who represented immigrants. She also arranged for students to spend one day each week in the chambers of her colleagues at the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. And she reserved a magisterial courtroom for students to deliver mock oral arguments—replete with judges bedecked in dark robes and red lights that flashed on the lectern as allotted speaking time dwindled away. Afterward, she critiqued videotapes of the performances, gently pointing out flaws in logic and delivery.

“[Justice] Sotomayor found it good to sit with students and think about their questions,” says Ellen P. Chapnick, Columbia Law School’s dean for Social Justice Initiatives, who taught the class alongside her friend for several years. “It was a different way of reflecting. She loves being around students. She loves being challenged by students on questions she hadn’t thought about, hadn’t thought about in a while, or hadn’t thought about in that way.”

While Sotomayor recently opened a new chapter in her professional life, the course she so painstakingly assembled at Columbia Law School continues under the
watchful gaze of another familiar face on campus: 2nd Circuit Appeals Court Judge
Debra A. Livingston.

Livingston, who had taught full time at the Law School before being named to the bench by President George W. Bush two years ago, welcomed the chance to embark on a new classroom endeavor. And, she says, the course provides a wealth of unique benefits to those who enroll: Students learn how to write a “bench memo” for judges under real deadline pressure and get frequent feedback on their writing skills, something that can be unusual in a typical classroom environment. “There are not many contexts in which law students can get this kind of experience,” Livingston says.

As it turns out, the benefits accrue in both directions. The course, and all that it demands, has offered Livingston a novel opportunity to examine the more formal role she inhabits each day on the bench.

“In the life of an appellate court judge, you have, as a necessity, to remove yourself from some of your friends, associates, and colleagues,” Livingston says. “It’s great to be back in the classroom where the students are going to be wrestling with the ideas a professor puts forward. It’s also very exciting to be with students who are hearing the idea of the law for the first time, and particularly exciting for a judge to reconnect with that experience of what it looked like when it was all new, year after year.”

Columbia Law School has a storied tradition of providing its students extraordinary access to some of the nation’s most prominent judges—both in class settings and informal sessions where such weighty topics as civil rights and national security are discussed over brown bag lunches or hors d’oeuvres.

Ilene Strauss, the Law School’s executive director of academic counseling and judicial programming who has co-taught the externship with Sotomayor since 2007, regularly extends invitations to judges to visit Columbia Law School for conversations with students.

Earlier this year, for instance, Alabama District Court Judge Myron H. Thompson journeyed to the campus from Montgomery to discuss the presidential election. Pennsylvania District Court Judge Anita B. Brody ’58 frequently returns to Columbia Law School to give advice about clerkship applications. Kenneth M.
Karas ’91
, who now sits on the federal district court in White Plains, N.Y.,
has spoken with students about his days prosecuting suspected terrorists.
Alvin K. Hellerstein ’56
ventured from his district court seat in New York to judge a mock trial last year. And Judge Robert S. Smith ’68, an associate judge on the New York State Court of Appeals and a former lecturer at the Law School, makes regular visits to discuss clerkships and the appeals court.

“It’s nice for students to work closely with people who are intellectual powerhouses and also have a really practical take on things, as well,” Strauss says. “It’s real life from successful, smart people.”

C. Scott Hemphill, who co-chairs the faculty clerkship committee at the Law School, echoes Strauss’ point. “All these interactions help give our students a better sense of the law in action and practical advice about how to plan a career that combines practice with public service,” he says. Hemphill has seen firsthand that the judges who teach regularly at the school, as well as those who serve as informal mentors, comprise a valuable network for students interested in working with members of the judiciary.

Perhaps the best-known Law School faculty member of the modern era to
ascend the ranks of the legal profession is Supreme Court Associate Justice
Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59
, who took time in a recent interview to recall her
tenure at the Law School nearly four decades ago.

Over a meeting in her expansive, temporary chambers on the Court’s second floor, Ginsburg’s eyes shined as she remembered her early days, beginning in 1972, as the Law School’s first tenure-track female faculty member. For the eight years following her arrival, Ginsburg pursued her life’s mission by arguing for gender equality in employment, scrubbing the U.S. code of language that differentiated on the basis of sex, and appearing before the high court she would eventually join as its second female jurist. All along the way, a team of Law School students accompanied her to courtrooms in New York, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C.

“My tenure at Columbia coincided with the full flowering of the revived women’s movement, and I was spending a good deal of my time helping to launch the ACLU Women’s Rights Project,” Ginsburg says. “I came to see the value of clinical education in those years because the students were engaged in a way that they wouldn’t be in a setting that was more academic.”

More than 30 years later, Ginsburg’s ties to the Law School remain strong. Her former law clerk David M. Schizer became dean five years ago, and he continues to be a valued source of recommendations, helping to identify promising Columbia Law School students who may be good candidates to fill his shoes as a Supreme Court clerk, the justice says.

When discussing the judicial heavyweights who have taught at the Law School, Ginsburg seems to hold a special place for senior federal district Judge Jack B. Weinstein ’48, who serves in Brooklyn. Weinstein, a towering figure in New York legal circles, taught at Columbia for two generations and maintained a presence in the classroom even as he wrote academic tracts and decided a series of landmark cases. Among the high-profile disputes that crossed his desk were lawsuits filed by Vietnamese-Americans alleging they were poisoned by Agent Orange and cases brought by plaintiffs who took aim at gun makers and the tobacco industry. Weinstein, now 88, stopped teaching at Columbia Law School a few years ago. But the example he set permeates Jerome Greene Hall.

Gerard E. Lynch ’75, a Law School professor and federal judge serving on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, took a course in evidence from Jack Weinstein during his time as a student at Columbia in the early 1970s. And one of Lynch’s first official appearances since his Senate confirmation in September was an all–Columbia Law School affair: He, Judge Robert D. Sack ’63, and Judge Debra Livingston heard an appellate case together on October 1 in Manhattan.

Lynch, who spent nearly a decade at the Southern District of New York before his most recent appointment, is the latest in a string of 11 past and present 2nd Circuit judges with ties to the Law School. The longstanding connection began with Emile Henry Lacombe, Class of 1865, who was among the first to serve on the court when it was established in 1891. Leonard Page Moore, Class of 1922, continued the tradition, as did Harold Raymond Medina ’12, who served as an assistant professor at the Law School from 1915 to 1940. In the 2nd Circuit’s 118-year history, there have been only 14 years in which it has been devoid of Law School graduates or professors.

Lynch ascended to the 2nd Circuit post with not only a wealth of experience gleaned from serving at the district court level, but also an array of scholarly accolades from years spent teaching at the Law School. In 1994, students voted to give Lynch a teaching award for his engaging lectures, and he later won a University-wide teaching prize, in part for his first-year Introduction to Criminal Law course.

“The principal thing is just that I enjoy teaching,” Lynch says. “It is my favorite part of being an academic. [I enjoy it] even more than the research. Every few years, the style and the substance of the class suddenly changes. The students bring something new to it all the time.”

Lynch had no desire to stop teaching after being named to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton in 2000. He and Livingston continue to maintain their office spaces at the Law School and make time to meet with students in Jerome Greene Hall as their schedules permit.

There, the judges say, they encounter gifted students who often make good candidates for clerkships in their chambers. Livingston just welcomed former criminal procedure student Matt Gurgel ’09 as a new law clerk after Labor Day. Nick Boeving ’05, who now works in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York handling a variety of civil matters, served as a clerk for Livingston two years ago, after enrolling in her national security seminar.

As faculty members who are sitting judges, Lynch and Livingston constantly balance competing demands on their time. But the energetic career of Judge Weinstein, they say, sets a high bar.

“When you’ve had that kind of example before you,” Lynch notes, “it’s inspiring. You don’t cut your ties to the teaching life.”

Judge Robert Sack ’63, a member of
the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals since 1998, says that as a lecturer-in-law at the Law School, he has always advocated for strong ties between Columbia and the courts.

“If anything, I’ve thought they should be closer,” Sack says. “I can’t think of a better way to teach the law to students than to take them down to a court and watch.”

Soon after arriving on the bench, Sack found that, as a sitting judge, he missed the chance to reflect on the latest developments in the legal areas that most interested him as a practitioner. To stay sharp, for the past eight years Sack has co-taught a Law School course in media law, one of his first professional loves.

“It lets me keep up an expertise,” reports Sack. “As a judge, I’m a generalist. I went from being an expert to, at the flick of a switch, becoming a generalist.”

For her part, Livingston says she regrets not attending more faculty lunches during the decade when she taught full time at Columbia Law School, where she could soak up know-ledge from experts with diverse interests. Nearly every week, the Law School offers a smorgasbord of lunchtime seminars where faculty members and other scholars present papers and debate ideas—a buzz of activity from which many appellate judges are cloistered.

Yet, after more than two years on the appeals court, Livingston says her tenure there has influenced, in subtle ways, her suggestions to Law School students.

“I think I always stressed lawyering skills, but I stress more these days the need to speak clearly, to answer questions that are being asked to you directly,” she says. “As a judge, I think I may have a special expertise.”

Livingston’s former student and law clerk Nick Boeving says that watching the judge in the classroom, and later during his clerkship, helped him appreciate the attention to detail that is required of a good attorney, as well as the ability to carefully consider both sides of an argument.

Those skills will be focal points of the appeals court externship course that Justice Sonia Sotomayor recently handed off to Livingston. Students will learn the ins and outs of writing memos for judges and may even help draft opinions, according to faculty members who have co-taught the course.

Friends and colleagues say that Sotomayor was so delighted by her experience with the appellate class at the Law School that she made certain, behind the scenes, that it would proceed without a hitch this autumn.

“From the moment she was swept up, she’s always taken the time to help us work on our end to make sure the course keeps going,” says Ilene Strauss. “The students who take the externship, they just love it.”

Carrie Johnson covers the Justice Department as a staff writer for The Washington Post.

Photographed by Peter Freed