Supreme Court vacancies typically become political issues during presidential election cycles, but this year vacancies in the federal courts have also entered the political scrum. Judge Shira Scheindlin (A.B. ’67) believes they shouldn’t. “On the trial court, very few cases involve political issues,” she says. “Most cases concern the average people and their problems.

“People get injured, lose overtime pay, are discriminated against,” Scheindlin continues. “You want the court to be fully staffed so everybody’s case can be heard and decided promptly. There’s no politics in that.”

After spending nearly 22 years as a judge for the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Scheindlin should know. In her two decades on the bench, she has delivered several decisions that captured national headlines. Last April, Scheindlin attracted quite a bit of attention for a different reason: She decided to step down.

Federal judges are appointed with life tenure and have no mandatory retirement age. “We have fine judges in their 90s and 80s, but some judges feel after a long period of time that they’ve done most of what they’d hoped to do,” Scheindlin says. “And that was me.”

Deciding to step down from federal court is unconventional, but Scheindlin has never avoided doing things her way. After graduating from U-M with an Asian studies degree, Scheindlin earned two master’s degrees from Columbia, one in Chinese history and the other in international affairs. She started work on a Ph.D., but she was repeatedly stymied by the same obstacle: trying to work with original sources without being fully fluent in Chinese.

“The language was so difficult,” she recalls, laughing. “Without living where it was spoken, I was never going to really master it.” But this was before President Nixon had made his historic visit to China, and the country was not yet open to Americans. Instead, Scheindlin tried to create a new degree at Columbia—American-Chinese relations—but eventually conceded she had hit a dead end. Her husband had accepted a teaching job at Cornell, and Scheindlin decided to go to law school.

A Life in Law

At Cornell in 1975, Scheindlin was one of very few women in her class and was the only mother. She excelled and went on to a legal career that included work as a prosecutor, as a professor, as a general counsel, as a magistrate judge, and in private practice before taking her post in Manhattan federal court. There, she presided over cases ranging from electronic discovery (where her decisions are considered case-law landmarks) to whether ratings of securities by rating agencies are protected by the First Amendment to three racketeering conspiracy trials for John Gotti, Jr. But she’s most well known for her decisions in civil liberties cases—most notably her decision concerning the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy.

Under stop-and-frisk, more than 4.4 million New Yorkers were stopped, questioned by police, and searched for weapons or contraband. Nearly 90 percent of the people stopped were released without charges, and 83 percent of the people stopped were Latino or black.

City officials maintained that the policy prevented crime, but Judge Scheindlin found it was indirect racial profiling and declared it unconstitutional. It is a decision Scheindlin still thinks a lot about.

In addition to the stops, Scheindlin thinks two other areas deserve review. “Police training is a real problem,” she says. “The police have a very difficult job. They have to enforce the law, but you don’t want them to cross the line. Some of the training videos tell officers to be scared: If you see someone reaching, shoot him. That can’t be good training. A lot of the shootings were based on fear.

“The other point,” she continues, “is police-community relations. There need to be open meetings where people from the community can really say why they feel the police are not treating them fairly, why they believe they’re being inappropriately targeted, what this does to them, and how it affects their lives. It would be a good thing if the police could really hear and understand that.

“And in turn, police could say, ‘But we’re fearful too, because so many people are armed and there have been so many of this or that kind of incident.’ It’s important for communities to understand police, too. If people could really talk to each other, I think understanding could improve.”

On the national level, Scheindlin says the effort to cultivate such conversation and understanding has, so far, been lackluster. “One party says there’s a war going on,” she explains. “The other says we’ve got to improve race relations and everybody’s got to calm down.

“I want to hear something practical. What’s an idea to go forward?”

Opponents demonstrated against the controversial stop-and-frisk policy. At its height, the NYPD stopped 650,000 people a year. Today, the number has dropped to 25,000 per year. New York’s crime rate has also dropped.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Scheindlin wants to develop new ideas because she knows they can make things better. “I’ve had some cases that affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. It’s very satisfying in the sense that you’ve done something to make a difference.”

To that end, Scheindlin is now working with JAMS, an organization that provides mediation and arbitration services, where she hopes to use her expertise to reform prisons and police departments and in other areas of public interest. She has also returned as counsel to Stroock, Stroock & Lavan, the firm where she began her career.

“I would like to do good in a new way,” she says. “I was a member of a very big court—50 judges—so the chance of getting a case that could create systemic change was pretty rare. They only come once in a while. I thought stepping down might bring more of these opportunities,” she concludes. “We’ll see if I made a good decision.”