80th Annual Survey of American Law honors Judge Jed Rakoff

Known for writing outspoken opinions on corporate crime and on the death penalty, Jed Rakoff, a senior US district judge for the Southern District of New York, was honored at NYU Law on February 21 with the dedication of the 80th volume of the New York University Annual Survey of American Law.

Jed Rakoff
Jed Rakoff

Each year the student-led group dedicates the Annual Survey to a distinguished lawyer. Recent honorees have included US Justice Elena Kagan and New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood.

A former assistant US attorney, Rakoff worked as a partner at Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, Alexander & Ferdon and Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson before being nominated to the federal bench in 1995 by President Bill Clinton. During his nearly 30 years as a judge, Rakoff has authored over 1,800 judicial opinions, published five books, and written over 180 articles, writing often about the intersection of law and science. Among his important decisions are 2002’s United States v. Quinones, in which he called the federal death penalty unconstitutional, and a number of cases involving the 2008 financial crisis, in which Rakoff called for stronger penalties against corporate wrongdoers.

Several of Rakoff’s friends and colleagues, including judges, federal prosecutors and legal scholars, offered remarks at the ceremony on Rakoff’s work and its impact. A recurring theme was his willingness to question accepted processes.

As an adjunct professor at NYU Law, Rakoff teaches seminars on class actions and science and the courts. In his opening comments, Annual Survey editor-in-chief Neel Lakhanpal ’23 praised Rakoff’s class action seminar, which he took last semester. “He has a deep relationship with the [Law] School,” said Lakhanpal, “and as students, we feel it.”

Accepting his award, Rakoff thanked the speakers for their remarks, quipping, “I hope someday I get to meet the guy they just described.”

Watch video of the dedication:

Selected remarks:

Neel Lakhanpal, Annual Survey editor-in-chief: “The judge continues to break new legal ground. Just last week, I was listening to a podcast about a jury trial in which the designer brand Hermès brought a trademark suit for infringement of its Birkin trademark against a digital artist who had started selling Meta Birkin NFTs. And who but a certain Judge Jed Rakoff of the Southern District of New York was presiding over this first-of-its-kind trial which provided us some of the earliest insight into the interaction between trademark law and NFTs.” (video, 5:17)

Denise Cote, senior US district judge for the Southern District of New York: “The 20th century gave us several great Southern District judges, and whatever your shortlist is of those judges, Jed is on it.… He literally moves the conversation in our nation in a way very few judges have ever done.” (video, 8:42)

Gerard Lynch, senior US circuit judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, on Rakoff’s work as a contributor to the New York Review of Books: “His articles are designed not only to explain, but also to question complex legal concepts and practices for an audience of highly sophisticated academics, writers, and other intellectuals at a level that enables accurate and nuanced public debate by non-specialists. That is a tremendous accomplishment and a tremendous intellectual service.” (video, 34:01)

Matthew Shahabian ’11, assistant US attorney for the Southern District of New York: “Judge Rakoff’s superpower is simple. He always asks ‘Why?’ even when the question seems minor and unimportant, even when something has been done that way for years…. On every case, every issue, the judge always pushes the parties to look past standard ways of thinking about the legal problems and asks, ‘Why? Is this just? Is this equitable? Is this sufficient?’...High-profile cases are not magnetically attracted to Judge Rakoff… His cases become high profile because he draws our attention to important issues that have gone unnoticed or ignored.” (video, 38:45)

Erin Murphy, Norman Dorsen Professor of Civil Liberties at NYU Law, on Rakoff’s tenure as the only federal judge appointed to the Department of Justice’s National Commission on Forensic Science: “He carried this capacity to take law’s mandates seriously…and reexamined longstanding, well accepted orthodoxies.… He was undaunted by powerful forces that like to shroud the problems in forensics in darkness.” (video, 50:32)

Posted March 21, 2023.