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In Conversation with Sujit Choudhry, the next Dean of Berkeley Law
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In Conversation with Sujit Choudhry, the next Dean of Berkeley Law

Pallavi Saluja

Sujit Choudhry, an expert in comparative constitutional law, shall be the next dean at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Law. Currently a Professor of Law at New York University, Choudhry is also the founder of the law school’s Centre for Constitutional Transitions.

His five-year term at Berkeley will begin on July 1. In this interview with Bar & Bench, Sujit Choudhry talks about the Centre for Constitutional Transitions at NYU, what the new post means to him, law school rankings and more.

B&B: Can you tell us a bit about the Centre for Constitutional Transitions?

Sujit Choudhry: The Center for Constitutional Transitions and its affiliated clinic are the world’s first university-based programs that provide research and policy guidance for civic leaders engaged in constitution drafting and governance.

Launched in March 2012, the center partners with a global network of multilateral organizations, think tanks, NGOs, and universities based in Berlin, Buenos Aires, Cairo, Delhi, the Hague, Ottawa, London, New York, Tunis, and Zaragoza. With its partners, the center assembles and leads international networks of scholars and practitioners to produce academic research and policy proposals.

The Constitutional Transitions Clinic compiles research for advisors in the field and deploys researchers for support on the ground. The clinic is preparing a series of thematic, comparative, reports on constitutional issues facing nation states worldwide.

New constitutions are central elements of regime change and democratization. Although knowledge exists on constitutional design, much information and historical analysis is incomplete, outdated, or non-existent. These programs strive to fill the gaps, to support the spread of democracy and the rule of law with theoretical and practical data.

B&B: Your thoughts on the “Comparative Constitutions Project”?

SC: The Comparative Constitutions Project fills a void for developing and transitioning democracies. The project is the first of its kind to pull together a database of constitutional provisions in governments worldwide—a cross-national historical dataset of written constitutions. The material is effective for academics and practitioners alike: it informs the analyses of legal scholars who advise constitution drafters; and it informs the work of constitutional assemblies struggling to solve problems of governance. It’s terrific, extremely important work.

With seed money from Google and other collaborators, the project launched “Constitute,” which allows users to systematically compare the world’s constitutions across a broad set of topics — using a simple, online interface. It complements and deepens the center’s work by expanding access to democratic laws, statutes, and legal codes. Congratulations to Tom Ginsburg and his team for this brilliant idea.

B&B: Dean of Berkley Law– Can you talk about this opportunity?

SC: I have long been an admirer of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law (Berkeley Law). It is one of the world’s greatest law schools—and an integral part of one of the world’s greatest research universities. I am thrilled to be the next dean.

What’s distinctive about Berkeley Law is its culture. It’s got hustle and drive and people willing to experiment and try new things, which seems very much rooted in its identity as a public university. There’s a sense of mission—that Berkeley Law and the university are here for a purpose. That’s a huge part of what attracted me to the school.

In the 21st century, great law schools will be global crossroads for people and ideas from around the world and will set global intellectual agendas. Berkeley Law has the capacity to take a leading role in that effort. The faculty produces agenda-setting research across all major areas of law. Their scholarship exhibits a degree of methodological diversity that is much greater than that of any other leading school. Their work can help develop a greater understanding of the core principles of the rule of law in emerging democracies.

That’s important because we’ve discovered that legal issues don’t neatly compartmentalize; they’re not confined to single jurisdictions. A legal issue may have state, foreign, international, and transnational dimensions. So, in that sense, a law school should deepen its engagement with global issues.

B&B: There is a growing amount of debate on the economics of an LL.M. for a non-US law student. Thoughts?

SC: I’m a big fan of LL.M. degrees, and not just because I have one from Harvard. The Berkeley Law LL.M. program is thriving. Its graduates represent a worldwide community of about 50 countries, including France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, India, Korea, and more. In fact, Professor Andrew Guzman, the associate dean of the school’s international and graduate programs, says demand for an LL.M. degree from a top U.S. school is increasing due to the rise of international business transactions in a global economy.

Berkeley Law faculty prepare LL.M. students for careers in a time of rapid change, complexity, and opportunity that requires leaders with multidisciplinary training, a global perspective, and adaptable skills. The school offers core courses in international business transactions, intellectual property law, U.S. law, and more; with specialized certificates in business, technology, environmental, and international law.

In a global legal climate, it’s essential for international practitioners to understand the fundamentals of U.S. law. Not just for financial transactions and deal-making, but to collaborate across disciplinary lines and international boundaries to tackle the most difficult problems facing our global community.

B&B: With the current job scenario in the US, have you seen a drop in number of students taking up law as a career?

SC: The world of legal practice is changing. Our students will increasingly pursue careers outside of law, in business, government, and non-profits. Regardless of profession, they will experience frequent career changes. Our students will have to constantly reinvent themselves. The new normal is that there is no normal.

Berkeley Law has done extremely well in the midst of today’s volatile and uncertain job market. It still has a terrifically strong applicant pool and admits an incredibly smart, dynamic, and talented student body. The school’s employment statistics rank among the highest because employers know that our graduates are among the top nationwide. But we’re in hand-to-hand combat with other schools for the best students from all backgrounds, and we need the resources to ensure that those who’ll benefit most from a Berkeley Law education will choose to come here. A top priority of mine is to expand financial aid so that all academically gifted students can study at Berkeley.

B&B: What are your thoughts on the law school rankings?

SC: Law school rankings are promoted as comparative tools for prospective students, but their value has been under considerable debate. I don’t believe they are a true indication of a school’s worth, but, good or bad, they are here to stay. Importantly, the rankings don’t drive decision-making at Berkeley Law.

What’s extremely important, but often neglected by the rankings, is a school’s culture. At the core of a public law school like Berkeley is a commitment to social mobility and social engagement. Our alumni, students, and faculty are at the heart of the great debates facing local communities, California, and the world. We are a visible presence in these debates because that’s part of our university’s mission—speaking to the issues of the day and advancing policy discussions and proposed reforms. In that score, Berkeley Law is number one.

B&B: You hold law degrees from Oxford, Toronto and Harvard. Any differences you observed in the teaching and learning of law across three countries?

SC: I had incredible experiences and learned copious amounts of law and theory during my studies. When I was Oxford, I got a law degree and studied English constitutional law. I wanted to go back to Canada and pick up a legal credential there, so I studied Canadian constitutional law. Then I interned in South Africa with a legal team as part of the certification of that country’s constitution in 1996, and learned about constitutional law there. Then I got my LL.M. at Harvard, and learned about American constitutional law. As I started to compare and write about these different models, and what it means for constitutional law to migrate across jurisdictions, this comparative constitutional law field exploded. I had the right set of tools at the right time and credit each school for my success.

B&B: You clerked with then Chief Justice of the Canadian Supreme Court, Antonio Lamer. Could you tell us a bit about that experience?

SC: It was an extraordinary experience clerking for Justice Lamer. As his closest legal advisor, I performed all legal tasks, from drafting memos and opinions to analyzing case law and precedent. He was a wonderful mentor to me, and I will always be grateful for his tutelage.

B&B: What is your take on the Indian system of judges appointing judges? Do you think this needs to be re-examined?

SC: Judicial appointments are under renewed scrutiny around the world, so this might be a good time for India to join in the discussion. Any system, whether in India, the U.S., or Canada, needs to be viewed as credible with strong buy-in across the political spectrum. It would be interesting for India to re-examine its own method of appointments and seek ways to improve it.

The Center for Constitutional Transitions just released a new report on this very topic: Constitutional Courts after the Arab Spring: Appointment mechanisms and relative judicial independence. The report discusses and analyzes four models of constitutional court appointments. Since these courts may play an important role in consolidating democracy after a constitutional transition, it is essential that they be independent and accountable.

Photo Credit: New York University School of Law