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Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Reconsidering the Greatest Judges

Everyone has a short list for the greatest judges of all time. I want to complicate that analysis if I may.

Who are the greatest trial judges of all time? This is not something people think about when they consider the GOAT. Part of the reason is that it's hard to know a lot about trials from the remote past. There is also room for doubt about what makes someone a great trial judge. Controlling the courtroom? Instructing juries? The accuracy of evidentiary rulings? Another issue, though, is that people usually associate greatness in a judge with appellate opinions, probably because that's the way law is typically taught.

Which judges who were great at trials and appeals? Suppose we said that the GOAT could only be someone who did both. That would rule out a lot of quite famous judges. The early Supreme Court Justices, of course, were required to do trials and appeals because of the "riding-circuit" system. Thus, John Marshall did trials (not as many as his colleagues, but still.)

If I use the limitation just stated, I think that Marshall still stands near the top. Learned Hand might be there also, because he was a Federal District Court judge for many years. Maybe Story and Washington too. Beyond that, I'm not sure. Most of the usual suspects were never trial judges (or did not distinguish themselves as trial judges.) 


Posted by Gerard Magliocca on March 4, 2020 at 09:54 AM | Permalink


Judge Frank Johnson seems to be up there.

At least, he is well known and honored. Don't know how well beyond that he practiced his craft in run of the mill cases.

Posted by: Joe | Mar 12, 2020 5:07:48 PM

Ed Weinfeld

Posted by: Douglas Levene | Mar 7, 2020 5:22:23 PM

Tom Denning?

Posted by: Salem | Mar 6, 2020 8:23:56 AM

I don't think we can answer who was the greatest trial judge because relatively little of a trial judge's output is opinions that we can read. It's sort of like asking who was the greatest law teacher of all time. We don't have the information to answer that.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Mar 6, 2020 2:51:13 AM

Jack Weinstein; Louis Pollak

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Mar 4, 2020 8:14:28 PM

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