U.S. Judicial Conference International Judicial Relations Committee Prepares for Semi-Annual Meeting

by Janet K Levit

In my last post, I used Medellin as a lens to examine the role that judicial decisions play in charting the course of international law, suggesting that Vienna Convention rights may now be enshrined in ways that are impervious to any particular judicial decision. My point was not that the judiciary is insignificant – my point was simply that judges join a multitude of other transnational actors in making, interpreting and enforcing international law and that the role of the judiciary in this mix might ebb and flow depending on the moment.

Yet, to the extent that the judiciary remains an active and important transnational actor, I would like to use this post to peer inside the “black box” of “the judiciary” and to examine a sub-group of judges who are shaping and, in turn being shaped by, foreign and international law – the U.S. Judicial Conference International Judicial Relations Committee (the Committee).

Many scholars, particularly those who write about transnational judicial dialogue and transnational networks, have in passing mentioned the Committee in their work, but, to date, the Committee has been rather private about its activities. Judge Robert Henry (10th Circuit, chambers in Oklahoma City), a dear mentor and friend and the current chair of the Committee, invited me to speak to the Committee at their semi-annual meeting last June. At that time, I suggested that the Committee “go public” with some of the intricacies of their work, and I am thankful that Judge Henry agreed that Opinio Juris would be an appropriate forum.

The Committee’s formal charge is:

To coordinate the federal judiciary’s relationship with foreign judiciaries and with official and unofficial agencies and organizations interested in international judicial relations, and the establishment and expansion of the rule of law and the administration of justice, and to make recommendations as appropriate to the Chief Justice, Judicial Conference of the United States, and other judicial entities.

Yet, this formal description minimizes the breadth and depth of the Committee’s work. Committee members include: federal appellate judges, federal district court judges, federal magistrate judges, and a state supreme court judge. In addition, the Committee regularly liaisons with the Federal Judicial Center, the Department of State International Information Bureau, the Open World Leadership Center, U.S. AID, and the Federal Court Clerks’ Association. State Department Legal Advisor, John Bellinger (also a member of the Committee), spoke at the meeting I attended; in the past, the Committee has hosted Noah Feldman and, this December, will host Azizah al-Hibri and Ruth Wedgwood. And, for those scholars who view the international legal landscape as a network of networks, the U.S. Courts Administrative Office reported on the International Association for Court Administration; and the Federal Court Clerks’ Association reported on its interactions with foreign and international counterparts.

The Committee is not a facade for high-end, western European, judicial junkets. In fact, none of the Committee members’ trip reports last June described Committee-related travel to anywhere near western Europe; instead, these judges interfaced with foreign judges, and supporting administrators, in Nigeria, the Phillipines, Vietnam, Brazil, Suriname, Kyrgyzstan, Poland, Russia, and Egypt.

Committee members generally make substantive presentations while on their trips. As the Committee’s charge includes the “establishment and expansion of the rule of law and the administration of justice,” the content of these presentations runs the gamut from the structure of the U.S. federal judiciary, to the nitty gritty of setting up an administrative office to support courts; from judicial ethics and independence to primers on injunctive relief, plea bargaining and intellectual property regimes. Of particular note, Judge Vicki Miles LaGrange (W.D. Oklahoma), spent several weeks in post-genocide Rwanda working on judicial reform initiatives; and Judge Diane Wood (7th Cir.) participated in the Women’s Legal Rights Project in Madagascar.

I must admit that terms like the “rule of law” bring out the skeptic within me – What is the “rule of law”? Is it a type of “code” for the “rule of American law”? Yet, after spending two days with the Committee, with the judges and administrators who are on-the-ground, sometimes without creature comforts, interacting with counterparts on issues often as mundane as the technicalities of setting up courts and managing case flow, I have shed much of my skepticism. These judges are the embodiment of transnational judicial dialogue, and their one-on-one, interpersonal interactions powerfully transcend geopolitical differences. And while the Committee’s work at first appears unidirectional – exporting U.S. knowledge on how to structure an effective, independent judiciary, my distinct sense after being an interloper and after reading some of the Committee members’ judicial decisions, is that this transnational judicial intercourse shapes, perhaps in immeasurably subtle and subconscious ways, these judges’ relationship with foreign law, international law, and international institutions.


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