photo of Judge Sutton.

Federal appeals judge plans a whirlwind visit

A distinguished U.S. Court of Appeals judge will make the most of his two-day visit to the School of Law – teaching, speaking and mentoring.

Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton, who sits on the Sixth Circuit court, based in Cincinnati, will be on campus Oct. 1 and 2. He’s coming at the invitation of Professor James A. Gardner, who shares with the judge a scholarly interest in federalism, in particular state government structures.

Sutton’s book 51 Imperfect Solutions: States and the Making of American Constitutional Law (Oxford University Press), published last year, argues that American constitutional law should recognize the role that state courts and state constitutions have in protecting individual liberties. The book takes up four areas of constitutional law – equal protection, criminal procedure, privacy and free speech – and examines how state-level jurisprudence has made important contributions in these areas.

Gardner, who notes that the judge once served as Ohio’s solicitor general, says, “He’s quite unusual among federal judges in that he has an interest in state constitutional law. He’s a really decent and thoughtful person and judge, with some very eclectic interests.”

Sutton will teach a class session, focusing on federalism, during Gardner’s new course for University at Buffalo undergraduate students, Introduction to the American Legal System. In that class and in his public lecture, Gardner says, the judge will also be a good model: “He is a throwback to an earlier era when people of different political views could converse civilly and agree to disagree, and that’s a useful thing for people to see.”

Indeed, Sutton’s public appearance on Oct. 1 (4 p.m. in 108 O’Brian Hall) is sponsored by two student organizations with divergent points of view on constitutional interpretation: the Federalist Society and the American Constitution Society.

“Any good constitutional law class will address the differences between originalism and more progressive approaches to interpreting the Constitution,” says third-year student Jonathan Francisco, president of the Federalist Society at the law school. “The judge fits the bill of the Federalist Society – our goal is to educate the legal community on the principles of freedom, federalism, separation of powers and judicial restraint, and limited constitutional government. It’s really just getting that other perspective out there that is not heard super often on campuses.”

His classmate Trek Fulater is president of the law school’s chapter of the American Constitution Society, which is often described as the Federalist Society’s progressive counterpart. “We do a lot of events geared toward engaging in dialogue about certain constitutional issues, such as the role of states’ rights in a very federalist-leaning society,” Fulater says. “We expect Judge Sutton to discuss the states’ role in how state constitutions expand and amalgamate the federal constitution. It should be a very good conversation.”

In addition, Sutton has agreed to talk with students on the topic of judicial clerkships and legal careers, drawing on his own career path as a law firm partner, a state solicitor, and judicial clerk, including to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Judge Sutton recruits his clerks from a broad array of law schools, and has sent former law clerks on to clerk for eleven different U.S. Supreme Court Justices.

Marc Davies, associate director for career services, cites a podcast in which Justice Scalia called Sutton – a graduate of Ohio State University’s law school – the best law clerk he ever had. For UB School of Law students, Davies says, Sutton demonstrates that great legal talent will always find its level.

“To navigate a path from a public law school into the Supreme Court as a law clerk is quite a feat. It’s not frequently done,” Davies says. “And he appears to have made it a point to seek out talent from a broad array of schools in his own recruiting of law clerks for his chambers.

“Our students stand to gain much from the experience with Judge Sutton. He has had an amazing career. His story is an inspiring one, especially for students who are passionate about writing and studying the law.”