Danielle R. Sassoon
2013 Temple Bar Scholar Report
Days after arriving in London, we stood at the gate to Westminster Abbey. As this year's Temple Bar scholars, we were in the midst of discovering "legal London," and would soon enter the Gothic church to attend the ceremony for the Opening of the Legal Year. The gate proved an ideal spot for celebrity sightings-of the legal sort, that is-as the United Kingdom's most renowned judges and barristers, clothed in their finest robes and horsehair wigs, passed through. Among them we spotted Sir John Thomas, the newly-appointed Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, whose black and red robe was adorned with white fur and thick gold chain. Each ensemble, whether embellished with gold brocade, white lace, purple panels or a simple black hat, was not only magnificent to behold, but also announced that person's particular role in legal society. The similarly uniformed groups clustered once inside the Church. To the swell of organ music, they proceeded down the nave to take their designated seats for a religious service that has inaugurated the new legal year since the Middle Ages.
The ornate garb, hierarchical arrangement, and religious ritual all celebrated continuity with history and tradition. Indeed, we would observe time and again that London's legal culture remains steeped in centuries-old customs, many of which predate the birth of the American legal system. That same week, we visited the four Inns of Court, which function as gateways to the barrister profession. Aspiring barristers join one of the inns, and in so doing extend a lineage of barristers dating back as early as the Fourteenth Century. Often unnoticed by passersby, the inns occupy beautiful buildings that are tucked away in courtyards or behind brick walls in the heart of London. Associations that provide professional support and training, the inns also commemorate and maintain the rich heritage of legal London. The physical spaces alone, which include buildings that survived the Great Fire of 1666 and the blitz of World War II, link past and present. Coats of arms line the walls to honor masters of the bench: distinguished barristers from the inns' inception to the present day. Inn members dine surrounded by portraits of kings and legal luminaries, and beneath stained glass windows whose imagery offers clues to times past. For newly minted barristers, assuming the mantle of the profession is intertwined with inheriting a role in the preservation of cherished legal traditions.
It was striking, then, to perceive a complementary impulse for modernization. I spent my second and third weeks in London shadowing barristers from the chambers of One Essex Court and Twenty Essex Street. As practitioners of commercial law, these barristers migrate between two courthouses: the historic Royal Courts of Justice and the newly built Rolls Building. In contrast to its Victorian Gothic counterpart, the Rolls is constructed of glass and stone, a modern design meant to project a modern outlook. The building is the city's new hub of international commercial litigation, drawing litigants from across the globe who, represented by British barristers, submit high-stakes and path-breaking disputes for resolution by British judges.
Evidence of adaption can be found, too, at the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, where I spent the last week of our program as a guest of Lord Clarke. The existence of a Supreme Court is, in of itself, an innovation-prior to 2009, designated members of the House of Lords exercised the judicial powers that now reside with Justices of the independently-housed Court. Of note is the method by which British Justices (and other judges) are appointed. An opaque insiders' process has given way to a more transparent application system; a politically neutral committee considers the credentials of each candidate with the goal of choosing the most qualified lawyer for the post. The courtrooms at the Supreme Court are open to the public and one might be surprised to see that parties and Justices no longer wear wigs or robes, and that the judicial panel sits at a lower elevation than the practitioner. As American observers, we were amazed that the hearings lasted hours, and sometimes days, in contrast to the strictly enforced half-hour-per-side rule at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Because the selection of judges is detached from the political process, the legal profession remains confident in the impartiality of its judiciary. That confidence may also, in part, derive from the more limited role of the judiciary in the United Kingdom. For example, the Supreme Court has no authority to declare an act of Parliament unconstitutional (in fact, England has no written constitution!). Only more recently has the judiciary begun policing acts of Parliament - the Human Rights Act of 1998 empowers judges to declare acts of Parliament incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). During our week at the Supreme Court, for example, the Justices were considering what constraints article 5 of the ECHR, which sets out a right to liberty, places on England's procedures for committing mentally ill juveniles to treatment facilities. The practice of declaring an act of Parliament incompatible with the ECHR remains controversial (debate continues about whether to repeal the Human Rights Act) and seems to have invited greater scrutiny of Supreme Court decisions. It remains to be seen how the nascent Supreme Court will inhabit its increasingly visible role within British society, and I will watch the Court's evolution with interest.
I want to thank the American Inns of Court for granting me this remarkable opportunity - in particular, Cindy Dennis for her enthusiasm in putting together a once-in-a-lifetime program, and Justice Donald Lemons, for expertly shepherding us through legal London. I am immensely grateful for the generosity, hospitality, and candor of my many British hosts. The barristers at One Essex Court and Twenty Essex Street sacrificed precious time to patiently educate me about the practice of commercial law in London. Lord Clarke and his colleagues at the Supreme Court - each with infinite wit, wisdom, and kindness - went above and beyond to make the Temple Bar experience a memorable one.
Danielle R. Sassoon---earned her J.D. from Yale Law School in June 2011. While there, she distinguished herself as finalist and co-director of the Barristers' Union Mock Trial; Book Reviews and Features Editor of the Yale Law Journal; and Coker Fellow, teaching assistant for a professor of Constitutional Law. Sassoon graduated magna cum laude with an honors degree in History and Literature from Harvard College, where she claimed the Detur Book Prize, the Sally and Cresap Moore Prize, and the Norman Podhoretz Prize. During the summer of 2009, Sassoon served as a foreign law clerk to Justice Hanan Melcer of the Israel Supreme Court, for whom she researched British and American legal principles for possible application to contemporary legal issues in Israel. She has served as a law clerk to the Honorable J. Harvie Wilkinson III of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Charlottesville, Virginia; and currently serves as clerk to Associate Justice Antonin Scalia of the Supreme Court of the United States.