It is a real pleasure to introduce today’s guest post in the form of an interview with Johann Morri, a judge at the Administrative Court of Versailles, in France. He studied law both in France and in the United States, where he was a law clerk for a Federal Judge in the District of North California for several months. He also served at the French Ministry of Economy, Finance & Industry, where he led the international law office within the Department for Legal Affairs.
How do you describe your work to people who know nothing about it?
I usually tell them to have a seat first… More seriously, it essentially depends on what country they come from. In continental Europe, people are usually familiar with the concept of administrative courts, because many countries (Germany, Italy, France, for instance) have a dual court system. In these countries, administrative courts are a separate body of courts, where a panel of professional tenured judges is in charge of deciding cases brought by private citizens or companies against the State or one of its entities (local governments, agencies, etc.). In the UK, I understand there are administrative courts, but that they are usually specialized and their jurisdiction is limited to a certain type of case.
In the USA, it’s a different story. The US legal system has what they call “administrative law judges” (ALJs). An ALJ is an official who presides at an administrative trial-type hearing to resolve a dispute between a government agency and someone affected by a decision of that agency. But even if some aspects of their work and our work overlap, there are significant differences. For instance, ALJs do not always have the final say on the dispute (sometimes the agency is not bound by their decision) – whereas our rulings are final, unless they are appealed before a higher court. Another difference is that we don’t really hold common law type hearings: our procedure is mostly based on written exchanges of briefs.
Now, if we go back to more basic aspects of my work, I’d say it mainly consists of resolving disputes between private citizens and the French State (immigration law, tax law, tort law involving the French State, urban planning regulations, police regulations, etc.). The procedure is a written one, and thus about half of our work is reading briefs. Once the briefs have been analyzed, we do legal research, write legal memos and draft opinions, and decide the case after a short hearing (where the parties have no obligation to appear). Every case is decided by a written judgment. Most of the time, cases are decided by a panel of three judges, plus a fourth judge who doesn’t decide the case but gives his/her independent opinion on how the case should be resolved (in France, they are called a rapporteur public). I sat on a panel for a long time, but now I’m a rapporteur public.
Can you describe what your ‘typical’ day might involve? What’s the workload like?
I work with a panel of three judges. They decide between 8 and 12 cases every two weeks, which means I have to issue a written opinion on about 24-36 cases every two weeks (2 or 3 opinions a day). For each case, the judge in charge of it has already written a memo, which includes a summary of the facts and the law, a proposal for a solution, and their draft opinion. I review the file and the memo, do my own research, and write another memo in which I agree or disagree with the proposed resolution of the case. Then, a meeting is held during which we discuss all the cases with the panel.
A few days later, the Court hears oral submissions on the cases (usually very short ones, rarely more than 15 minutes): I read out my opinion first, and the Court then listens to the parties. Right after the hearing, the Court retires to its chambers (without the rapporteur public, this time), and decides the cases. A written opinion is sent to the parties two weeks later. In more than 90 % of the cases, the rapporteur public and the Court agree on the solution. But sometimes the Court doesn’t go along with my opinion. That’s part of the job, and it gives you a sense of modesty.
What sort of thing makes your work more difficult?
For various reasons, the workload has increased a lot over the last 10-15 years. That means that a judge sitting on a panel has to write one judgment per day, and that a rapporteur public has to give their opinion on 2 to 3 cases per day. It doesn’t really leave time to linger on a case. Each time you do some extended legal research on a case, you know you’ll have to spend less time on an easier case. Sometimes it can be frustrating.
What made you interested in the law?
That’s a long story, and I’ll try to make it short. When I was a student in government studies and political sciences, I got involved with various student organizations that were giving legal advice in immigration law (a kind of ‘law clinic’, if you like). I learnt a lot on the job, and discovered that law could be both useful – a lot could be at stake – and intellectually challenging – to some extent, it’s like a chess game, and it can even be funny. That’s how I decided to go to law school.
Why do you think the law is important? And/or why is it important to you?
I’d like to quote from the line of an old French movie: “Justice is like the Virgin Mary. If it doesn’t make an appearance once in a while, people begin to have doubts” (no offence meant). More seriously, even if law and justice are two separate things – one may even raise doubts about the very existence of something called justice – sometimes the law is the only way people have to vindicate their rights. The result is not always right, fair, or useful – you might have heard of a French novel/Covent Garden & Broadway musical where a fellow named Jean Valjean spends 19 years doing hard labor the because he stole a loaf of bread…, but in a number of cases, the law will improve the way things work.
What has been your most memorable law-related experience to date?
For a few years, I worked for the French Ministry of Finance, as a kind of legal advisor or in-house counsel. I took part in a very complex civil and criminal litigation regarding a major oil spill, with dozens of parties, and a lot of money at stake too. We – it was team work, and a lot of people had worked on the case before me, and worked on it after me – achieved a very good result. Of course, I also have memorable experiences as a judge, but that one is the first that came to mind.
Which law work/object/book would you take with you to a desert island?
Well, as you know, law is mostly about the way people relate to each other, so I don’t think a law book would be very useful on a desert island. But with a big one, like those overpriced American law school textbooks, you could probably break crab shells, and get yourself some proteins.
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You might also be interested in this post, a commentary by Judge Morri on an article by Professor Chander of the University of California, Davis – School of Law, on which legal system might be appropriate for Facebook, or this post in the same series about working lives – Life as a freelance court reporter.
If you want to find out more about the administrative justice system, the Versailles Court’s website has an excellent brochure to download – in English here, and in French here.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the above interview are personal and do not reflect the view of any public institution.