Sonia von Gutfeld
October 17, 2007 (NEW YORK) -- The final exam for the Trial Practice seminar at Columbia Law School doesn’t take place in a classroom, and there are no blue test booklets. Instead, students conduct a full mock jury trial, from opening arguments through direct- and cross-examinations to summations, in a courthouse in downtown Manhattan. For some of those students, the judge also has been their professor – and now the U.S. Attorney General nominee – Michael Mukasey.
The former chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, nominated on September 17 by President Bush to be the next Attorney General, Mukasey has taught Trial Practice as a Lecturer-in-Law at Columbia Law School every spring since 1993 to rave reviews from students.
“Judge Mukasey doesn’t teach to be on the stage or to tell war stories. I think he sees it as public service,” said John Ponyicsanyi ’08, who took his Trial Practice seminar in spring 2007. “My impression is that he wants to train future lawyers in order to sharpen the practice of law.”
Mukasey, whose nomination hearings begin this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, brings a wealth of experience to the classroom. Early in his legal career he served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Criminal Division of the Southern District, where he became chief of the Official Corruption Unit. After 12 years at the law firm Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, he became a U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of New York. During his 18 years on the bench, including six as Chief Judge, Mukasey presided over a number of high-profile trials, such as the 1995 trial of Omar Abdel Rahman and others accused of involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Students find that Mukasey, who regularly wears a suit and calls students by last name, creates a classroom that feels as professional as a courtroom, yet he remains approachable and encouraging. His criticism is tough but fair, they say, and he employs a sense of humor that helps students learn from their mistakes.
During the seminar, students perform each phase of simulated civil and criminal trial exercises before the class and their professors, who provide individual feedback on what worked and what didn’t. They learn the tools of the trade – when to make an evidentiary objection, how to craft a closing argument – and also a respect for the practice.
“Judge Mukasey is dedicated to teaching students not only the art of trial practice, but to be scrupulously honest about the facts and the law,” said Lev Dassin, Chief of the Criminal Division of the United States Attorney’s Office for the S.D.N.Y, who has co-taught Trial Practice at Columbia Law School with Mukasey since 1999.
Ponyicsanyi agreed, noting that Mukasey “gave us a sense of one’s duties not only to your client, but to the other side and to the court.”
While students are drawn to the course to gain hands-on skills under the instruction of real-world practitioners, they leave with much more.
“Focusing on facts and focusing on using your common sense and respect for everyone involved in the process can’t hurt whether you pursue litigation, corporate law or business law,” said Dassin. “These are life lessons, and Judge Mukasey is an excellent teacher of them.”