Judge John Gleeson shares how his teaching inspired his work on the bench

Having won a conviction against Gambino family boss John Gotti in 1992, Judge John Gleeson brought a wealth of raw-knuckle legal experience to the bench. But Gleeson, who was appointed a judge of the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York by Bill Clinton in 1994 and stepped down from the bench in March 2016, said that his role as an adjunct professor at NYU School of Law since 1995 has had an invaluable impact on his role as a judge.

In recent years Gleeson made a name for himself as a leader in sentencing reform and a fierce critic of mandatory minimum sentences. While he presided over cases each and every day, he found some distance from the courtroom helpful for deeper reflections on these complex subjects. “There’s no doubt in my mind that a lot of the work that I’ve been doing on the bench grows out of my teaching,” said Gleeson, who each fall leads a class on Complex Federal Investigations, and each spring, a Sentencing seminar. “It’s very easy to lose sight of everything but your docket, but the teaching has forced me to get my head up out of the weeds.”

Seminars offer professors a lot of structural discretion, and Gleeson takes full advantage. He assigns hypothetical sentencing problems and readings that range from current policy documents to cases to proposed bills. Guest speakers—defense attorneys, prosecutors, federal judges—make regular appearances. And the class takes a trip to a federal prison in Danbury to speak with inmates about their cases, an eye-opening experience that, Gleeson says, never fails to move each and every student.

It was over several years of teaching his seminar that Gleeson first began looking closely at “problem-solving” courts such as mental health courts and drug courts. The latter provide drug addicts who are low-level offenders the option to avoid prison by entering treatment for substance abuse. Slowly the judge realized that drug courts, which had been a success at the state level but had not been widely adopted at the federal level, were a viable alternative to incarceration for his own court.

“I remember vividly telling my class that I thought drug courts might not be a great idea. What do judges know about drug treatment and the behavior modification efforts those courts are built around? We’re not trained to be drug treatment specialists or social workers. One of my students raised her hand and very respectfully said to me, ‘You’re not trained to be judges either and that doesn’t seem to be much of an impediment,’” said Gleeson. “It occurred to me, too gradually, that right in front of me in my courtroom, for years, were people for whom these alternatives made all the sense in the world.”

Gleeson launched a drug court for the Eastern District of New York, officially named the Pretrial Opportunity Program, in 2012. US Attorney General Eric Holder praised both that program and youthful offender program Gleeson helped launch in his court in 2013, which also involves monthly meetings with judges.  The Attorney General described them as “emblematic” of the alternative to incarceration programs that are needed to address the overincarceration problem in the federal criminal justice system.

Alex Levy ’14, a law clerk for Patti Saris, chief judge of the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts and chair of the US Sentencing Commission, was a 3L in Gleeson’s Sentencing seminar. He recalls how, like many of his classmates, he experienced the class as a call to action, recognizing how inequitable the current criminal justice policies are. Levy was struck by how Gleeson, despite being a sitting judge and a national thought leader on sentencing reform, had a gift for putting students at ease, asking that they call him by his first name and creating a classroom environment where students felt comfortable disagreeing with him. 

“The most important lesson I learned from Judge Gleeson: Never be afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom. Even when you have tremendous stature and a large role in an institution as an insider, you shouldn't be afraid when you see injustice to speak out,” said Levy. “That is a lesson I will try to heed throughout my career.”

As for Gleeson, he says that teaching such bright and inquisitive students keeps him sharp and ultimately elevated his ability to do a good job in the courtroom.

“A lot of people think there’s a gigantic gap between the academy and the trenches,” said Gleeson. “I’m not sure how wide that gap is, actually, but part of my job as a teacher at NYU Law is to bridge it.”

Originally posted March 23, 2015

Updated June 13, 2016