Law Professor Profile: Don't Let Your Emotions Get the Best of You

Law Professor Profile: Don’t Let Your Emotions Get the Best of You—How One Professor is Changing the Way Judges Use Their Emotions
By Annie Prasad, Vanderbilt University Law School ‘17

“Don’t let your emotions get the best of you.” A phrase that is often hard to live by when faced with difficult situations or disturbing facts surrounding a heinous crime. Emotions are characterized colloquially as blocks to intelligent and rational thought. Advocates play to emotions to persuade juries: to elicit compassion, anger, and disgust, among others. Judges, the pinnacles of impartiality, would presumably be encouraged to ignore their emotions when hearing cases, evaluating arguments, and writing opinions, in favor of rational, clear-headed thought. Professor Terry Maroney of Vanderbilt Law School has another approach.

At the outset of her legal career, Prof. Maroney had no idea she would be working on reforming how federal judges regulate their emotions in their decision-making process. When she graduated second in her class from New York University Law School in 1998, she began her legal career clerking for the Hon. Amalya L. Kearse on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Judge Kearse—who was the first woman appointed to the Second Circuit—inspired Prof. Maroney, and markedly changed the way she writes and thinks. While she loved the academic nature of her clerkship, she did not intend to pursue academia at that point.

Thereafter, in 2001, Prof. Maroney joined Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr (“WilmerHale”) as a litigation associate. For an exciting three years, she litigated cases including a white-collar criminal defense case in which the defendant was deemed emotionally incompetent for sentencing purposes—sparking her interest in law, emotional capacity, and rational thought. She also worked on an immigration case in front of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and two affirmative action cases in front of the Supreme Court, Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, on behalf of the University of Michigan, alongside John Payton.1 Within two weeks of the Grutter and Gratz verdicts, John Kogut, a man whom Prof. Maroney represented in post-conviction proceedings with Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, was exonerated.2

Prof. Maroney’s first brush with judicial regulation of emotion came in 2004, during her first teaching position. After a period of self-reflection, she applied to the Furman Academic Fellowship Program at New York University School of Law, which provides young graduates the opportunity to work for one year in-house as an instructor to jumpstart careers in academia. The article she produced that year focused on the relationship between law and emotion, the subject she would enjoy the rest of her career. Prof. Maroney set out to write about the emotional incompetence issue she had litigated at WilmerHale, but found herself quickly sucked into the broader universe of law and emotion. Although she describes the piece as “self-organizational,” designed simply to help her gain a foothold in a diffuse and poorly organized literature, this first article became her most cited work, even to this day. By what she calls kismet, Prof. Maroney found her niche.

Prof. Maroney’s work regarding judicial regulation of emotions came a little bit later. In Gonzales v. Carhart, a case upholding the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, Justice Kennedy noted, “while we find no reliable data to measure the phenomenon, it seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained.”3 Struck by the lack of sociological or psychological data to support Justice Kennedy’s conclusion, Prof. Maroney questioned, from an epistemological standpoint, why one judge’s opinion as to other people’s emotional states constituted good evidence of those emotional states, and what legal status his imagination of how he might feel in that situation should have. Her scholarship surrounding judicial musings about other people’s emotions opened the door to an even larger field: judges’ own emotions.

Prof. Maroney hit a vein: there was limited scholarship on judicial emotion, and it was a vast issue with practical implications. In one of her first articles on the topic, Emotional Regulation and Judicial Behavior, she devised a model for emotional regulation: preparing realistically for emotion, responding thoughtfully to said emotions, and integrating emotion. She explained that suppression of emotion is dangerous because it increases cognitive load, affects memory, and exacerbates emotional influence on thoughts. The director of the Federal Judicial Center took notice. Guided to the article by a Google alert, the director contacted Prof. Maroney and asked her to meet and discuss it.

Because of that meeting, Prof. Maroney now holds judicial trainings all over the country and internationally, teaching judges about regulating emotions and judicial decision-making. She helps judges learn to normalize, contextualize, and then regulate their emotions, leading to healthy, thoughtful decision-making. Prof. Maroney went on to co-found and co-direct the Mid-Career Seminar for U.S. District Judges, a phase of training designed to reinvigorate judges and promote leadership and excellence. Prof. Maroney is shaping how judges think; instead of preventing their emotions from getting the best of them, she is teaching them to get the best from their emotions.

For more information on Prof. Maroney’s scholarship, see the following:
1. Terry A. Maroney, The Persistent Cultural Script of Judicial Dispassion, 99 CALIF. L. REV. 629 (2011).
2. Terry A. Maroney, Emotional Regulation and Judicial Behavior, 99 CALIF. L. REV. 1485 (2011).
3. Terry A. Maroney, Angry Judges, 65 VAND. L. REV. 1207 (2012).

1See generally Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003); Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244 (2003).
2See Ariel Levy, The Price of a Life, THE NEW YORKER (Apr. 13, 2013),
3See Gonzales v. Carhart, 550 U.S. 124, 159 (2007).


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