When Judge Denny Chin ’78 Decides


On the day the Hon. Denny Chin ’78 was scheduled to sentence infamous Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff, the judge’s thoughts turned to the goals of punishment that he learned three decades earlier, in his first year at Fordham Law School. Madoff, then 70, asked Judge Chin for 12 years; meanwhile, probation had recommended 50, and the government had sought 150 or “something substantial” for the Wall Street investor’s decades-long stock and securities fraud totaling approximately $20 billion.

Judge Chin, then sitting on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, knew early on that Madoff deserved a substantial sentence, he told a room of Fordham Law students and faculty Thursday night. However, it wasn’t until he read the pre-sentencing report and the probation department’s calculation, heard from lawyers on both sides, and listened to victims that he decided on the 150-year sentence he issued on June 29, 2009.

“In most sentencings, you don’t have 400 letters or emails from victims,” recalled Judge Chin, who was appointed by President Obama to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 2010. “You don’t have the whole world watching. And lots of times, things are simpler.”

Judge Chin and longtime New York Times reporter Sam Roberts discussed sentencing as part of adjunct professors James Bernard and Joel Cohen’s How Judges Decide course, in which distinguished state and federal judges discuss thorny issues that they wrestle with daily. Cohen, a veteran white-collar criminal lawyer and author of Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide, presided over Thursday’s lively discussion.

Most judges choose not to speak publicly about cases, even closed ones, when they are not on the bench. Judge Chin has charted a different course in recent years, reasoning that the public should know more about how judges do their jobs. He notably participated in a New York Times article titled “A Judge’s Education, a Sentence at a Time” that illuminated his judicial process and philosophy.

“It’s a very difficult thing to pass judgment on people,” Judge Chin told the class. Judge Chin served in the Southern District from 1994 to 2010, prior to his current appointment.

Judges must care about the people who enter their court, as well as their own work, Judge Chin said. For example, he and his law clerk wrote six drafts of a recent opinion, when the second draft probably would have sufficed.

“I want the opinion as strong as possible and as well-written as possible,” Judge Chin said, adding his opinions’ place in the public eye drives him to make them as attainable as they are useful and meaningful. Judge Chin has regularly taught first-year legal writing at Fordham Law since 1986.

Judge Chin said that, with experience, he has improved at determining whether defendants are truthful when expressing remorse. In general, more defendants should speak during the sentencing phase because it provides them an opportunity to persuade judges for a more lenient sentence, he added.

Just as he anticipated a substantial sentence for Madoff prior to June 29, 2009, Judge Chin almost always has an idea, based on written arguments, whether the Second Circuit should affirm, vacate, or reverse a decision. Oral arguments rarely persuade him, he noted, before concluding with words of encouragement.

“If you’re a lawyer, you have to assume you have a shot,” Judge Chin said. “If you have an opportunity to argue in the Second Circuit, why would you not do it, even if you have a losing case. It’s such a great opportunity, and in a small percentage of the cases you might even have an impact.”

As a benefit to the entire Fordham Law community, the How Judges Decide classes will be open for any and all Fordham Law students to attend, whether or not they are formally enrolled in the course. Faculty and staff are also encouraged to attend. Lectures will take place on Thursdays from 6:00–7:50 p.m. in Room 3-01. 


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