Syracuse University Magazine

Keith Bybee

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Court of Public Opinion

Keith Bybee covers a lot of ground in American culture. A member of the committee of SU law professors chosen by the American Bar Association to evaluate the qualifications of two U.S. Supreme Court nominees, Bybee is equally at ease comparing the sarcasm of TV's Judge Judy with the more authoritative approach of Judge Wapner on the original People's Court. Public perception of the U.S. legal system is a central focus of Bybee's research and teaching, and he finds much to suggest that artifice is at least as influential as fact when it comes to forming the public's view of the courts. "Legal procedures, while stately, are pretty boring for most people," he says, citing the failure of Court TV and other attempts to package actual court proceedings as entertainment. "But if the images the courts themselves produce are not quite ready for prime time, you have other people intervening to manage, manufacture, and frame those appearances. We see this in the popular TV ‘judges,' and in television courtroom dramas, such as Law and Order." 

Theatrical representation of the legal system often extends to the treatment of Supreme Court nominees, who are typically introduced to the public through televised sessions of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Bybee points to the hearings for Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose supporters tended to focus on her feel-good personal success story, while opponents repeatedly turned the conversation back to a few lines from a talk she gave to law students concerning a single controversial case. "What generates political attention is often not a fair representation of the whole record," Bybee says.

A Princeton graduate who earned a doctorate at the University of California, San Diego, Bybee came from Harvard in 2002 to join the Maxwell School political science faculty as Michael O. Sawyer Chair of Constitutional Law and Politics and senior research associate at the Campbell Public Affairs Institute. When scholars from the College of Law and the Maxwell and Newhouse schools formed the Institute for the Study of the Judiciary, Politics, and the Media (IJPM) in 2006, Bybee's personal brand of inquiry, seamlessly spanning legal studies, the humanities, and the social sciences, made him a natural choice for founding director. His position at the nexus of so many interdependent concerns was again instrumental in his appointment as the first Alper Judiciary Studies Professor at the College of Law. "The Alper professorship is designed primarily to support the interdisciplinary activities of the institute," Bybee says. "The Alpers have been there for IJPM from its inception, providing insight and energy as well as financial support."

Bybee's ability to speak to audiences across disciplines and professions has made him a sought-after writer, editor, and lecturer. His 1999 book, Mistaken Identity, was described by a reviewer as "a meticulous...and rich reading of the judicial history of the Voting Rights Act." Bybee's newest title, All Judges are Political-Except When They are Not: Acceptable Hypocrisies and the Rule of Law, to be published this fall, examines the seemingly enigmatic coexistence among Americans of widespread beliefs that the courts are biased in favor of one group or another, and an extraordinary willingness, even eagerness, to rely on the courts to right wrongs and render justice. "We have a contradictory judicial process that suits the contradictions in the people it governs," Bybee says. "I suggest it's the only kind of system that will work in a heterogeneous society, which is filled with irreducible disagreements and yet wishes to remain self-governed. It's just not possible to wait for all of us to agree on first principles in order to resolve disputes." —David Marc





Paul E. and the Hon. Joanne F. Alper '72 Judiciary Studies Professor

RECIPIENT:

Keith J. Bybee, College of Law and Department of Political Science, Maxwell School

BACKGROUND:

The Alper professorship is a faculty position at the College of Law established in 2009 with a gift from Joanne F. Alper, judge of the 17th Circuit Court of Virginia, and her husband, Paul, an attorney.