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Federal Judge Diane Wood and Pulitzer Prize–Winner Linda Greenhouse Featured at Colloquium on Courts

Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge and Supreme Court Expert Discuss How Judges and Justices Decide When—and When Not—to Write Dissents

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New York, May 11, 2012—Columbia Law School students and faculty gathered recently to discuss the inner workings of a collegial court with Judge Diane Wood of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit and Linda Greenhouse, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter who covered the Supreme Court for The New York Times for more than three decades.

The discussion marked the final spring event of the Colloquium on Courts and the Legal Process, a workshop series that brings together judges, scholars, and students to discuss current research on courts and judges. The colloquium was launched three years ago by Professor Bert I. Huang, who views the program as a means of promoting dialogue between judges and legal scholars. 

“There’s been so much talk about how judges and legal scholars seem to have less and less to say to each other,” Huang said. “So I thought: Why not bring them both into the same classroom, to engage on topics they both care about?” said Huang, a specialist in federal courts and civil procedure who has advised the constitutional high courts of Brazil and Taiwan.

During this academic year’s closing workshop, Judge Wood spoke about several issues she raises in her forthcoming law review article “When to Hold, When to Fold, and When to Reshuffle: The Art of Decisionmaking on a Multi-member Court,” including why judges opt to write separate opinions. Examining her own body of work, Wood noted several motivations for writing separately, including institutional considerations—such as when one believes a particular rule might be difficult to administer—and fundamental disagreements over principles.

“Sometimes it really is just a matter of principle,” Wood said. “You simply cannot go along with the rule of law that your colleagues are proposing.”

Greenhouse, meanwhile, addressed the impact of separate writings on the judicial process of a given court, citing Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s view that separate opinions improve the majority opinion. The first draft of a dissent, Scalia notes in a 1994 article, “often causes the majority to refine its opinion, eliminating the more vulnerable assertions and narrowing the announced legal rule.”

Pictured from left to right: Judge Diane Wood, Linda Greenhouse, and Professor Bert Huang.

The concluding part of each colloquium is devoted to a question-and-answer session between the judicial experts and the students and faculty in the audience. Several guest speakers have said they were impressed by the sophistication of the students’ questions and comments.

“I was particularly impressed by the way Professor Huang had obviously stimulated the students to prepare themselves to make valuable contributions to the discussion,” said Lawrence A. Collins ’65 LL.M. (Lord Collins of Mapesbury), a former justice on the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom who has been a speaker three times since the workshop’s inception.

In addition to Lord Collins, the colloquium’s previous featured experts have included Judge Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, Justice Kate O’Regan of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, Judge Pierre Leval of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, and Chief Justice Cezar Peluso of Brazil’s supreme constitutional court.

By bringing together judges and professors, the innovative seminar has launched “a much-needed dialogue between academia and the courts,” said Leval, who this past spring spoke at the colloquium for the second time.

The key to colloquium’s success so far is the “generosity of the many judges and scholars who have come to speak with us,” said Huang, who clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter and Chief Judge Michael Boudin of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit.

“They come with open minds and a willingness to think hard about each other’s ideas,” Huang said.

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