Sunday, February 27, 2011

Judge Denny Chin Says He's Working On It

It's been just over a year since the Fairness Hearing on the Google Books Settlement Agreement. A lot has happened since then. Google's place in the pantheon of companies that will revolutionize and/or destroy publishing has been taken by Apple. The judge presiding over the trial, Denny Chin, was elevated to the Circuit Court of Appeals, but because of the shortage of judges on the district court (Judge Chin's District is down 9 judges) caused by the political stalemate in the US Senate, Judge Chin has been forced to keep most of his cases, including the Google case.

Yesterday, Judge Chin was honored by Princeton University, his alma mater, with the Woodrow Wilson Award. This award is given every year to the alumnus or alumna of the undergraduate college  who best exemplifies Wilson's memorable phrase "Princeton in the Nation's Service". In the morning, I went to hear him speak to his fellow alumni about his career as a judge.

He talked about the confirmation process, saying "it went on far too long, and frankly it's a process that needs to be fixed." He was nominated by President Obama on October 6th, 2009. Things initially moved rather quickly. His Judiciary Committee hearing was in November, and the Committee sent the nomination to the full Senate in December. But due to a Senator's anonymous "hold" his nomination didn't get a floor vote until April of 2010. After that six and a half month wait, the vote was 98-0. Of 875 federal judgeships, approximately 12% are vacant.

Chin's talk was entertaining and full of good humor. He concentrated on his "fun" cases, including cases involving New York's "Naked Cowboy" who sued Mars Candy for trademark dilution and invasion of privacy, a toy case pitting the makers of Commando-bot against the makers of Command-a-bot, and of course the Anna Kournikova versus Penthouse case, in which he was forced to spend hours upon hours studying relevant photos. The case in which he ruled that Listerine was not as effective against gingivitis as flossing made him a hero with his dentist, and earned him the tabloid nickname of the "Listerine Judge".  Chin didn't like this except it was better the "the Pervert's Pal" moniker he had earned by ruling Megan's Law unconstitutional in part. 

His most serious remarks came in reference to the Bernie Madoff case, in which the swindler was sentenced by Chin to 150 years of prison. Symbolism played a large role in Chin's thinking, which brought him back to his law school training about the role of sentencing. "Helping the victims heal" was an important consideration in his decision, one that he never encountered in law school. After the ruling, the same journalist who had labeled him the "Pervert's Pal" started calling him the "Rockstar in Robes".

The most moving part of Chin's talk came as he talked about his heritage. He did his Senior Thesis at Princeton on the "Old Ones" of Chinatown, the elderly Chinese. A photo of his grandfather was at the front of his thesis. His grandfather lived in a building of "railroad" apartments, each of which was occupied by an old man who had been separated from his family by the exclusion laws that had severely curtailed immigration from China to the United States. His grandfather had been able to go back to China only twice, once in the '20's when he got married, and then in the '30's, when Chin's father was born. Chin's Grandfather worked as a waiter in a Chinatown restaurant for many years, and like all the other men who lived in the railroad apartments, he would go to the post office every month and buy a money order to send home to his family in China. Chin's grandfather took the oath of citizenship in 1947, in the same court where his grandson would preside as a judge. Because his grandfather had become a citizen, and because immigration laws had been relaxed, Chin and his parents were allowed to come to the US in 1956 (Chin was only 2 years old).

Chin's appointment to the Court of Appeals was important to many people, because he became the only active Asian-American federal appellate judge in the entire country. His appointment was not only important to lawyers, judges, and politicians, but also to ordinary people like those living and working everyday in Chinatown. The Federal Court in New York is located adjacent to Chinatown so when Judge Chin goes out to lunch, random strangers will recognize him and tell him how proud they are of his achievement.

Chin took a number of questions after the talk. I asked him whether, given the year long wait in the Google case, his decision in the case was going to be longer than his Senior Thesis. As this was an active case he immediately said he wasn't going to comment, "but obviously I'm working on it".
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  1. Sounds like quite a talk! Thanks for reporting on it, Eric!

    I didn't realize how harsh the exclusion laws were.

  2. By the time the decision is issued on the Google Books case, the settlement will be so technically and economically out of date that it may create a mechanism that neither party wants at this point. When the settlement was agreed on, ebooks were dead and Google had few publishers signed up for current books. Now ebooks are the hot thing and Google has deals with thousands of publishers to be a provider of ebooks to the public. I keep wondering if the settlement won't be (if it can be) withdrawn by the parties.