Peering Behind the Velvet Curtain: Lessons from a Year Inside the Federal Courts

By Gould, Jon B. | Judicature, September/October 2008 | Go to article overview

Peering Behind the Velvet Curtain: Lessons from a Year Inside the Federal Courts


Gould, Jon B., Judicature


As Chief Justice John Roberts convened the September 2006 meeting of the Judicial Conference of the United States, I took a seat against the wall. The Chief Justice began his remarks by welcoming the distinguished body for its day of deliberations and thanking those who had arranged the meeting. But as discussions followed, my mind was suddenly ambushed by the lyrics to the Talking Heads' song, "Once in Lifetime." An apt metaphor for the day, the song intones, "And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?"

I got there as a United States Supreme Court Fellow for the 2006-07 term. Established in 1973, the fellows program brings four mid-career professionals to Washington D. C. for a year of service to the federal courts. Fellows are assigned to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the Administrative Office of the Courts, the Administrative Assistant to the Chief Justice, or, as in my case, the Federal Judicial Center.

It was an amazing year that allowed me to step behind the velvet curtain to meet and observe judges; to talk with U.S. and foreign jurists about the process of judging; to conduct research for and about the federal courts; and to learn firsthand howjudicial policy is made and administered at the federal level. As an academician, the year also allowed me to weigh the theories I had learned about judges and judging against the experience of watching judges "in action" as well as talking to many of them, candidly and informally, about what they do.

Against this backdrop I have returned to academe - or, more accurately, to span the gap between scholarship and evaluative research about the courts - with a better appreciation of where we in academe have "gotten it right" in explaining the courts, as well as where we have more to learn and new fields to plow in describing and predicting judicial decision making. Although I do not claim to have "figured out" the courts or judicial behavior, the year has left me with new understandings of the connection between academic theorizing and the actual practice of judging and court administration. This essay addresses that nexus, offering three observations that may allow academic researchers and jurists to cooperate better to improve our understanding of the courts and advance judging.

I should say at the outset that I do not speak for anyone in the federal judiciary, and, in fact, I am sure there are some within the federal courts who will disagree with me. Unlike certain "tell all" books about the courts,1 I am not violating confidences or divulging sensitive information obtained from my year as a fellow. In a few instances I quote conversations with judges, but the details are sufficiently vague to mask the judges' identities. I did not go into the year with the intention of chronicling my experiences, nor did I keep a journal. Rather, this essay flows from several months of reflection following an extraordinary year of learning.

Lesson one: Although the courts may be reluctant to embrace academic explanations for judicial decision making, their informal behavior confirms at least some of the findings.

It is now established in political science that judicial decision making is motivated by a variety of factors besides precedent. To be sure, few would reasonably claim that the "legal model" of judging is irrelevant - that judges willfully and regularly ignore precedent - but a wide swath of scholarship has shown judges to be motivated by their personal preferences or attributes,2 by desires to influence and get along with their peers,3 and by concerns of public legitimacy,4 among others.

The federal judiciary presumes as well that individual judges may reach different results on similar questions; indeed, this is the very basis of appellate review and circuit splits. But, at the same time, the institution insists upon a public face of neutrality, rejecting the notion that these decisions could be based on anything other than reasonable and serious approaches to precedent. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Peering Behind the Velvet Curtain: Lessons from a Year Inside the Federal Courts
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.