On Friday, January 31, D.C. Circuit Court Judge Tatel and Judge Kavanaugh joined Dean Minow for a discussion about life on the D.C. Circuit. The event, co-sponsored by ACS and The Federalist Society, drew a large crowd of both law students and members of the public. Judge Tatel and Judge Kavanaugh began by discussing their work in private practice, government service, and the non-profit sector. They advised law students to form relationships with mentors who they admire and who are respected in the legal community early on in their careers.
The D.C. Circuit Court essentially presides over the federal government; it has jurisdiction over all the federal agencies, and some cases can only be brought in the D.C. Circuit. Judge Tatel remarked that the court excels at issuing objective and non-ideological opinions – or comes as close to it as a court can get. He attributed this in part to the small size of the court, which allows the judges to get to know each other well. The culture in the D.C. Circuit encourages judges to keep an open mind, and to have respect for each other and for panel decisions. Judge Kavanaugh agreed that the relationship between the judges was collegial, and noted that even when the judges disagree they do so with a tone of respect.
An ongoing topic of some contention in the legal community is the issue of scientific or technical expertise. Do judges have access to objective information they might need to solve complicated cases? Or is the presentation distorted by the adversarial system? This issue is particularly pertinent in the D.C. Circuit where many highly technical agency decisions, like certain EPA regulations, come up for review. Neither judge thought that having a separate “science court” was a good idea. They underlined the importance of having generalist judges, even in cases that are highly technical. Judge Tatel argued that generalists are able to decide cases more objectively precisely because they lack an expert bias. Judge Kavanaugh noted that it does make it hard for them to write opinions, because they have to make sure that the people who must comply with the decision will be able to understand it.
The Judges also addressed the problem of access to justice. Judge Tatel expressed the opinion that our judicial system, built on rule of law, cannot survive when a huge portion of the population doesn’t have access to courts. Both Judges contended that the legal profession as a whole has a responsibility to ensure that everyone who needs to access the courts can do so, and that each lawyer has a personal and professional responsibility to help others.
View the video of the event here – http://www.law.harvard.edu/media/2014/01/31_acs.mov