Not Lost In Translation: Judges from China Learn About U.S. Legal System at Columbia Law School


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New York, June 24, 2009 -- If you stopped by the classroom at Columbia Law School where 30 Chinese judges are learning about the American legal system, you might think you were in the wrong place.
Most are in their 20s or early 30s, so it’s no accident that they look like law students. In China, students train to become judges without first working as a lawyer or law professor as is more common here. The month being spent at the Law School is part of that process.
“Once they graduate from university and pass the judicial exam and also pass a civil-service exam set by the courts they are qualified to enter the judiciary,” said Feng Lin of City University of Hong Kong, which created an LL.M. program for the judges.
The program, in its inaugural year, includes an introductory, composite course on U.S. law at the Law School, which includes a mix of the theoretical, the practical, as well as ample time for cultural enrichment.
Lin said the participants at the Law School were the top choices following a rigorous nationwide selection process involving hundreds of candidates.
The judges bring to the program varying perspectives, having come from 24 Chinese provinces, said Benjamin Liebman, Director of the Center for Chinese Legal Studies/
What they have in common is being trained to handle disputes involving foreign companies, a reason why all of the instruction in Hong Kong and at the Law School is in English, though a teaching assistant holds review sessions in Mandarin.
Liebman, who speaks fluent Mandarin, is a leading authority on efforts China has made to create a fair and effective legal system. In an essay for the PBS program “Wide Angle,” he noted it is still a work in progress.
“The need for greater openness is acknowledged by China’s leadership, but it is also viewed with trepidation,” Liebman wrote. “Hence the state has tolerated and even encouraged recent efforts to strengthen administrative law … as well as an active role for the commercialized (but still state-controlled) media in curbing abuses. Recognition of the need for courts to play a greater role in resolving conflicts also helps explain tolerance of innovation by the courts in some cases.”
The program, run by the Law School’s Office of International Programs, features classroom instruction in Civil Procedure taught by Professor Suzanne Goldberg, Constitutional Law taught by Associate Professor Jamal Greene, and Torts taught by Liebman. Suffice to say, it’s been an eye-opening experience for students and professors alike.
“The teaching methods here are very different. The professors ask more questions,” said Feng Ge.
Ge had spent part of his day in a Constitutional Law class, where some students appeared taken aback when Greene called on them or asked their opinion about a case. That does not happen in China. But the judges were quick to adapt.
“I think part of the purpose of this is to immerse them in another legal culture, and I think the program has done a very good job of that,” Greene said.
In addition to classes, the program has given the judges a chance to hear from some of their U.S. counterparts, including U.S. Circuit Court Judge Robert Sack, who is also a Lecturer-in-Law at the Law School. Sack noted that up to 40 percent of his caseload for the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, where he sits, are asylum cases. Many involve Chinese nationals.
The judges have also spent time watching sessions in New York City criminal and civil courts, where the crushing caseload means justice is, by necessity, swift and expedient for misdemeanors and minor disputes.
“The most important thing I’ve learned is how judges should think and the way that judges in the West use their discretion,” said Xuetao Ma.
The class also traveled to Washington for the June 22 session of the U.S. Supreme Court, where they heard opinions read and met Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59, and received a tour of the Court.
Then there are the non-academic pursuits, such as movie nights, where the judges watch classic American legal films, and a trip to Citi Field to see the New York Mets. This is the first time in the U.S. for virtually every judge. With MetroCards at the ready, they have wasted no time turning into tourists when their studies are done. The United Nations, the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge have been favored stops. And it was no surprise that many made their way to Chinatown. But the food that awaited them may have been.
“It looks the same, but it tastes very different,” Ge said.
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