Law school marks 25th anniversary of the summary judgment trilogy

(September 26, 2011) A colloquium and lecture at the law school reflected on the 25th anniversary of the trilogy of summary judgment cases and how they changed litigation. Assistant Professor Brooke Coleman organized the events, which included an Influential Voices lecture by the Honorable Lee H. Rosenthal, U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division. The lecture was Thursday, Sept. 15, followed by the colloquium the next day.

Summary Judgment Colloquium & Lecture

From left, Professor Brooke Coleman, Professor Ed Brunet, Professor Jeff Stempel, and Judge Lee H. Rosenthal.

Celotex, Liberty Lobby, and Matsushita - the summary judgment trilogy of cases - came down 25 years ago. This anniversary provided the law school with the opportunity to reflect about how these three cases changed litigation and thus changed the world. In addition to Judge Rosenthal, an impressive group of scholars participated as panelists and speakers. They were:  Professor Ed Brunet (Lewis & Clark Law School), Professor Steven Gensler (University of Oklahoma College of Law), Professor Michael Kaufman (Loyola University Chicago School of Law), Professor Linda Mullenix (University of Texas School of Law), Professor Norman Spaulding (Stanford Law School), Professor Jeff Stempel (UNLV, William S. Boyd School of Law), and Professor Suja Thomas (University of Illinois Law School).

From left, Professor Suja Thomas, Professor Steve Gensler, Professor Michael Kaufman, and Professor Linda Mullenix.

While the changes wrought by the trilogy of cases themselves were rather discrete, the overall message sent by the cases was that summary judgment was not disfavored, and was in fact a procedure that should be used with greater frequency. Litigation has been profoundly different ever since. First, the litigants' experience has changed. She no longer gets her paradigmatic day in court. Instead of a shared public moment before her peers, she is more likely to have her dispute resolved on the papers in a judge's chambers. 

Second, procedural doctrine has been transformed. The civil rules and rulemaking activity focus heavily on pre-trial moments like discovery. The key time for litigants has shifted from resolution at trial to pre-trial adjudication and so the rulemaking and controversy about litigation are similarly focused. 

Finally, our institutions have been altered. The courts no longer provide a truly public forum for sharing and airing our grievances. Judging is no longer about negotiating a trial before the litigants' peers, but is instead about managing the pre-trial process in the shadows. With this change to our judicial institutions and its players, there is a change in how society views those institutions-more skeptically perhaps, but in the very least with less confidence that, when they are aggrieved, they will have access to the people and processes housed in those institutions.

Read more about the colloquium.

Sullivan Hall