On April 14, the NYU Law Forum discussed judges' personalities, and how their past experiences, views, and ideologies affect the decisions they make on the bench. Panelists included Joan Biskupic, author of two judicial biographies; Jeffrey Rosen, a professor of law at the George Washington University Law School and the legal affairs editor at the New Republic; and Frederick I. and Grace A. Stokes Professor of Law Norman Dorsen.

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Biskupic said that in American Original, her 2009 biography of Justice Antonin Scalia, she made connections between the dynamics of Scalia’s family and how he handles himself on the court today. His parent's families, she said, were very different; one side was studious and strict, while the other was more colorful and extroverted, and this disparity created tension. “What I realized is that here is a man who, in his daily work and in his personal life, is someone who feels very comfortable with tension, and actuals generates it quite often,” Biskupic said.

“Biography does matter, but it’s hard to quantify exactly how it matters,” Rosen said. He cited specific examples of how a judge’s previous experience can directly affect their career on the bench. Justice John Paul Stevens’s bent towards government neutrality and his preference for writing solo dissents, Rosen said, may have been influenced by having served on the Greenberg Commission in 1969, when he investigated two Illinois Supreme Court Justices accused of accepting bribes. “The judge who was accused of throwing the trial was on a case where a third judge was going to dissent, and expose the corruption, but he was persuaded not to in the interest of collegiality,” Rosen said. “Stevens thought that, had the third judge dissented, the entire scandal would have been avoided. As a result, Stevens felt that it was his responsibility whenever he disagreed with his colleagues to say so.”

“But the evidence is not all on one side,” Dorsen said. “There are a few contrary examples, where justices departed from their earlier selves.” Former Justice Hugo Black, Dorsen said, was a prime example. Black became a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s in an attempt to gain votes during his campaign for the Alabama State Senate. Later, as a Supreme Court Justice for almost 35 years, “he became a—and maybe the—leading advocate for civil rights,” Dorsen said.

The panelists discussed an assortment of factors that could affect how a judge makes decisions on the bench, including the age of the justice, the law school they attended, and whether they previously worked in private practice or in government jobs. Dorsen passed on the opinion of former Justice John Marshall Harlan, who Dorsen clerked for in the 1950s. According to Harlan, the most important aspect of a good court was variety, Dorsen said. “Harlan felt that every judge from a different background brought something distinctive when they talked about a case.”

Watch the full discussion (1 hr 13 min):

Posted April 20, 2010