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Friday, July 19, 2013

SCOTUS Guru Evan Lee: Giving Federal Judges News They Can Use

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Evan Lee and his cohorts dive into the legal nitty-gritty of high court decisions that district and appellate court judges need to apply immediately.

When the Supreme Court finishes its term, most court watchers take a well-earned holiday. But for Evan Lee, that’s when the real work begins.

Lee is one of four regular commentators on the Federal Judicial Center’s video program “Supreme Court: The Term in Review.” Filmed annually in July after the high court’s term ends in late June, the show is designed to give federal court judges and judicial staff top-notch analysis of the court’s term. The show has gotten rave reviews from district judges and their staffs; it is the Federal Judicial Center's most popular content.

Joining Lee on the program are fellow constitutional and criminal law rock stars Erwin Chemerinsky of UC Irvine, Suzanna Sherry of Vanderbilt, and Laurie Levenson of Loyola of Los Angeles. They’ve taken a team approach to SCOTUS analysis for the last 13 years.

The program is not for the intellectually timid. Rather than solely highlighting the most controversial cases, such as marriage equality, Lee and his cohorts dive into the legal nitty-gritty of decisions district and appellate court judges need to apply immediately.

“Law professors are usually paid to give opinions about whether laws or cases are good or bad, workable or unworkable,” Lee said. “But here, that’s not really our job. The Supreme Court is way up on the mountain top. They typically decide things at a very broad and general level. Our job is basically to take those stone tablets and try to make them usable and intelligible to folks who have to apply those rulings on an every-day level.”

The show requires tremendous preparation to squeeze an entire year of precedent into a live two-hour program. The show's producer assigns each case to two faculty commentators, who then prepare remarks, circulate talking points, and work together to script the show. Lee, for example, needed to prep extensively on the affirmative action case, Fisher v. University of Texas, handed down the last week of the term. Most news outlets called it a “nuanced,” decision that “sidestepped” the issue, but Lee and his team need to parse the case for judges who will have to apply it immediately, and know how to rule despite the lack of a bright-line decision.

The show is less “Crossfire” and more “MacNeil/Lehrer.” All four faculty members make frequent appearances on television, radio, and in the newspapers. Occasionally the panelists will challenge each other with respect to the meaning of a decision or its impact going forward, but they are always polite to each other. “While we stay clear of politics, we have to speculate on a decision’s meaning, in real time,” Lee said. They also have to be prepared to take questions from a live audience. This year's program aired live July 18.

“The hardest thing about the show is to follow the script, but sound natural. We can’t completely ad-lib it,” like many news programs. Nor is there much rehearsal. “It’s a pretty slam-bang kind of thing. We come in to Washington, rehearse for a day, shoot the program, and then get on the plane and leave,” he said.

The foursome does have a sacred tradition, though. After the day’s rehearsal they meet for dinner at a Washington restaurant. “We’ve all grown old together,” Lee said.

Though the show is a mainstay in the Federal Judiciary Center’s professional education for the nation’s federal judges, it is not exactly a mainstream media hit. While the programs are posted on YouTube, they average only about 1,500 hits. Still, apart from TED talks, it is some of the highest I.Q. content available. And for Supreme Court junkies, there is nothing better.

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