The power at work in civil procedure

smiling man in front of bookshelves.

During an early experience working with Burmese refugees in Syracuse, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and magazine journalism at Syracuse University, and at home in Connecticut, John Harland Giammatteo was first sensitized to the ways legal statuses shape the lives of some of society’s most vulnerable people.

And it was in London, where he earned master’s degrees in global migration and Southeast Asian studies as a Marshall Scholar, that he realized law was a way to make a difference in individual lives and create more just policies for human flourishing.

Working with detained immigrants and former detainees, he says, “I found that people really needed legal representation. I thought, maybe if I go to law school, I could do both: learn how to change the law and also represent people who need it.” He earned a JD from Yale Law School, and more recently a master of laws degree from Georgetown University Law Center. He has used his legal training to work on behalf of immigrants through three New York City organizations: the Immigrant Defense Project, the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project and Lutheran Social Services of New York.

Giammatteo joins the UB School of Law faculty this fall as an associate professor, on the heels of a clinical teaching fellowship at Georgetown University Law Center. There he taught in the school’s Civil Litigation Clinic and supervised students in a wide range of civil litigation matters. He also previously served two year-long clerkships for judges at the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut and U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

At Yale, he broadened his focus beyond immigration and began to look at civil procedure and the ways it affects the administration of justice. “I got interested in the courts and how people’s rights are tied up in courts and court procedures,” he says. “I learned a lot through immigration, and that’s often still the lens I use to think about my research. I’m also interested in working with other marginalized and lower-income people who are reliant on systems to adjudicate their safety or their livelihood. I’m thinking about ways the law either supports or gets in the way.”

In his scholarship, Giammatteo researches the intersections among civil procedure, federal courts and administrative law, in two primary areas: he studies access to courts and rights claiming, with emphasis on barriers to federal litigation; and uses the tools of ethnography to study the court-like procedures used by mass adjudicatory agencies, such as the immigration courts and veterans benefits system.

And in teaching Civil Procedure at UB Law, he’s showing his students the assumptions that underlie the ways our courts are organized and administered. “A lot of it,” he says, “is about power—power over individuals, over parts of the economy, over parts of our national life. There are questions about how we protect people’s rights, and make sure that procedure doesn’t get in the way of that.

“For me,” he says, “that’s what it’s all about, the intersection of rights and enforcement. We can’t have a functioning system without functioning courts, but we have to find the right balance between procedural values and substantive values. And in teaching, part of the challenge is to try to help students see the underlying issue—what is the case that led to this very dry opinion? It’s those values that give us the answers and become touchstones we can return to.”

At UB, he’s also interested in the intersection of the law school’s experiential and doctrinal teaching, having seen the value of clinical education firsthand.

“A law school is a really vibrant place,” Giammatteo says. “There are so many opportunities to learn from students, to work with students, to challenge the way we’ve always done things. The thing I love about UB is they’re really open to thinking about the school and community in new ways.”