In August 1956, the New Yorker published a “Talk of the Town” item about a social gathering attended by a couple of dozen judges. The jurists had come to NYU Law from all over the country to attend the Institute of Judicial Administration’s (IJA) first annual seminar for appellate judges, which today is one of the most highly respected educational resources in the rarefied world of higher courts.

Celebrating its 60th year, the annual event, now called the New Appellate Judges Seminar, attracts 35 to 40 state, federal, and military appellate judges for a week each summer. Of the nearly 1,400 appellate jurists in the US, 37 percent of all sitting state court appellate judges and 32 percent of current federal appellate judges are alumni.

The chief reason for the seminar’s success is straightforward: no one else offers the same kind of comprehensive training in the art and science of appellate judging. In “School for Judges,” a 1964 article in Federal Rules Decisions by an early member of the seminar’s faculty, the author put it thus: “Many men moving from law practice to an appellate court had concluded that more than a black robe and a parchment commission was needed to qualify a lawyer as the reviewer of his peers.” The writer would become chief justice of the United States 13 years later.

Apart from Warren Burger, the institute’s legal luminaries have included past board president Kenneth Starr, board of fellows member Sandra Day O’Connor, seminar faculty member William Brennan Jr., and seminar attendees Sonia Sotomayor and John Paul Stevens.

Any lawyer who becomes an appellate judge knows how to research, analyze, and write about the law. It’s less obvious how to meet the practical challenges of the appellate bench. The seminar curriculum includes a moot court exercise; judges discuss and decide the case in smaller breakout groups. Judges also attend sessions on topics such as the process of decision making, opinion writing, and judicial ethics and judicial independence.

Solicitor General Donald VerrilliWhen Samuel Estreicher, Dwight D. Opperman Professor of Law, became the IJA’s faculty director in 1991, he gave the Law School’s faculty a larger role in the curriculum. Last summer, Adjunct Professor Robert Katzmann, chief judge of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, talked about models of judging; Rachel Barkow, Segal Family Professor of Regulatory Law and Policy, led a session on statutory interpretation; and adjunct professors Judge John Gleeson, of the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York, and S. Andrew Schaffer updated attendees on current problems in criminal law. Every year since Estreicher began, the current or former US solicitor general or his or her deputy has spoken at the seminar’s opening dinner.

Estreicher expresses pride that the IJA remains nonpartisan, with past seminar faculty including such ideological opposites as Stephen Breyer and Antonin Scalia. He deems that nonpartisanship to be an important factor in the seminar’s widespread appeal.

Oscar Chase, Russell D. Niles Professor of Law, joined Estreicher as co-faculty director in 2000. Chase encouraged the expansion of psychological and intergroup relationship work in the seminar. Clinical psychologist Isaiah Zimmerman, who oversees the session “Conferencing and Collegiality,” has sometimes been asked to travel to the courts of seminar alumni to offer his expertise.

Samuel Estreicher, Diarmuid O'Scannlain, Shirley Abrahamson, Patricia Millett, Robert Katzmann“It’s like a marriage in which divorce is impossible,” Chase explains about appellate court relations, quoting Chief Judge Diane Wood of the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. “There are crises, there are tensions, there are personality issues.”

The small but nimble IJA staff, led by Executive Director Torrey Whitman, could not put on the seminar without the help of the IJA Summer Fellows. Every year, three or four rising 2Ls help prepare for the institute’s biggest annual event while also pursuing an independent research topic.

Matthew Shahabian ’11, a 2015-16 clerk for Sotomayor at the US Supreme Court, turned his summer fellowship research on the federal government’s role in the 2008 financial bailout into a published note. Another perk was the opportunity to attend the seminar himself.

“Getting to meet these people in New York and spend a week with them in a context where they’re not in their robes was really exciting for someone who’d just finished their first year of law school,” says Shahabian.

Judge Patricia Millett joined the DC Circuit in 2013 and attended the seminar the following summer after having served on the IJA board as a Supreme Court litigator. Last year, she co-led a session with IJA board member Peter Buscemi of Morgan Lewis called “The Perspective of an Appellate Advocate.”

“There aren’t books on how to do this,” says Millett. “It really is a word-of-mouth and experiential learning process.”

Posted November 18, 2015

Updated July 18, 2016