U.S. Federal Judge, Professor Teach Course Offering UVA Law Students Insight on Judicial Decisions

Lillian BeVier, the David and Mary Harrison Distinguished Professor of Law Emeritus, and Amul Thapar, judge for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky, teach students in the Judicial Philosophy in Theory and Practice course to predict how judges will rule.

Lillian BeVier, the David and Mary Harrison Distinguished Professor of Law Emeritus, and Amul Thapar, judge for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky, teach students in the Judicial Philosophy in Theory and Practice course to predict how judges will rule.

January 13, 2015

A federal judge and a professor are giving University of Virginia School of Law students an insiders' perspective on what goes into judicial decision-making through a January Term course this week.

Judicial Philosophy in Theory and Practice, offered as a one-credit course, aims to help students gain insight on what goes into judicial decisions.

Lillian BeVier, the David and Mary Harrison Distinguished Professor of Law Emeritus, and Amul Thapar, judge for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky, are team-teaching the course.

"We hope students develop a more sophisticated appreciation for what's involved in judicial interpretation than perhaps they can achieve in the rest of their coursework," BeVier said.

Judges base decisions on theories of judicial review and interpretation of statutes, and students use the same approach in analyzing actual cases, she said.

"Some of the cases that we cover invite students to consider whether judges actually can predict what the consequences of their decisions will be," BeVier said, pointing to Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade.

"It's often the case that, even when a judge is faithful to his or her own judicial philosophy, the long-term consequences of their decisions are unexpected and/or unwelcome," BeVier said.

The readings for the course include decisions, media accounts, and excerpts from books and scholarly articles written by judges. "No matter what viewpoint students walk in with, they will leave with a deeper appreciation and understanding of other viewpoints, me included," Thapar said.

The course also explores both previously decided cases and pending decisions involving marriage laws and health care law, and students read several of Thapar's decisions.

For many judges, the process of decision-making matters more than the outcome, Thapar said. "If a lawyer understands a judge's viewpoint, they're more likely to be able to predict how he will rule," he said.

The class will look at whether a given judge is consistent in his approach and viewpoint across cases. Students will also examine occasions when judges defer either to the letter of the law or to the decisions of other branches of government. In doing so, students will discuss statutory and constitutional interpretation, the sources of law and information available to judges, and the ability of judges to anticipate the future.

"The course helps students learn how to approach judges, understand judges and do their best on behalf of their client in that regard," Thapar said.

The class has been offered during the January Term each year since 2012. Some of the students who have taken the class have clerked after graduation, including four at the U.S. Supreme Court.

One such student, Jonathan Urick, is currently clerking for Judge Jeffrey Sutton of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Columbus, Ohio. In the 2013-14 term he clerked for Thapar, and in the 2015-16 term he will clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

"As a clerk, what is particularly valuable about the course is that it links theory and judicial practice," Urick said. "The course covers some heavy theoretical topics, but Judge Thapar and Professor BeVier do a great job getting students to apply the abstract to real, contemporary cases. Judge Thapar's wealth of experience especially helps students understand how judges deal with concerns about their role on a day-to-day basis."

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