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Regents’ Professor: Michael Saks joins ranks of distinguished scholars

September 14, 2009

Editor’s Note: This profile is one in a series that highlights Arizona State University’s 2008 and 2009 Regents’ Professors. The Regents’ Professor honor is the most prestigious faculty award at the university. Click here to view the complete list of awardees.

The seeds of curiosity sprouted in Michael J. Saks’ psyche at an early age.

“As a young person, I was always one of those kids with my hand up in class,” says the professor at ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, who also is an ASU professor of psychology. “I liked school. I was taking it all in.”

His questions have paid off.

Saks, a world renowned expert in the field of law and social science, was named an ASU Regents’ Professor, the most prestigious faculty award bestowed at the state university level, by the Arizona Board of Regents last May. Saks was recognized for his significant contributions to legal education in a broad range of topics, from accuracy in legal decision-making and jury selection to legal policy on organ and tissue transplantation and sentencing, and for his incisive and informative writings often cited in state and federal court opinions, including those of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Paul Schiff Berman, the College of Law dean, calls Saks a “superstar professor” who possesses every attribute desired in a senior faculty member. Saks is a “high-impact scholar with a truly international reputation” whose cutting-edge work has grabbed the attention of the legal and forensic science communities, Berman says. He notes that in addition to being a prolific writer, Saks travels the world to lecture about the intersection of science and law, and he is an extraordinary ASU citizen.

“He is one of the most popular professors at the law school and is an esteemed, active colleague, always willing to pitch in and help with unfailing good cheer and unflappable competence,” Berman says. “In addition, he is an extraordinary mentor.”

Saks, a Philadelphia native, came to ASU in 2000 from the University of Iowa, where he was the Edward F. Howrey Professor of Law and a professor of psychology. He holds a doctorate in social psychology from Pennsylvania State University and a Master of Studies in Law degree from Yale Law School, and he has taught at both Boston College and its law school. It was there Saks began his pioneering work in empirical research methods and statistics.

“It seemed that, in taking a look at how laws had developed in the past, a lot of them no longer fit the present, and using social science research would provide more of a precise basis for framing the law than simply hunches and moral feelings,” says Charles “Buzzy” Baron, a law professor at Boston College, who collaborated with Saks on the book, “The Use-Nonuse-Misuse of Applied Social Research in the Courts.”

“Michael’s research on the jury would replace people’s hunches on how juries work.” 

In addition to his scholarship on juries, Saks is known for his early research on and skepticism of the claims traditionally made about the reliability and use of handwriting, fingerprints, bite marks and other forms of forensic identification in courtrooms. His message, at first, was not well received.

“I was a voice in the wilderness saying, ‘Hey, the king’s not wearing any clothes,’ at a time when nearly everyone blindly accepted the claims that it was perfect and flawless,” Saks says. “As time went by, and more scholars looked at it, the number of people questioning wide areas of forensic science grew.”

Vindication arrived when a committee of the National Academies of Science issued a blockbuster report criticizing most forensic science as the product of shoddy science and poorly tested practices. The report cites Saks’ work 16 times.

Saks has been a visiting professor at Georgetown University Law Center, Ohio State University and the University of Virginia, where he met David Faigman, with whom he would eventually collaborate on the groundbreaking book about law and scientific evidence, “Modern Scientific Evidence: The Law and Science of Expert Testimony.”

“It was the first such book of its kind, because it was both accessible on the legal framework for the admissibility of various evidence and also had scientists writing on the state of the art of their disciplines in a way judges would understand,” says Faigman, the John F. Digardi Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

Saks, whose research earned the American Psychological Association’s award for “Distinguished Contributions to Psychology in the Public Interest,” says his best work has had an against-the-tide quality.

“To get people thinking about something in a different way, even if the eventual verdict is that you are wrong and the conventional wisdom is right, has its value,” he says. “But to challenge a widely held view, and have the world come around to your view, is an interesting experience.”

Just as intriguing are the teaching tactics of Saks, who works at introducing students to something of value, determining which subject matter works well with them and which does not, getting a good audience response, and being flexible enough to serve his classes well.

“He’s not a hardened litigator like most of us are, and so he offers a nice perspective into the questions we’re looking at,” says Betsy Grey, a faculty fellow, along with Saks, in the College of Law’s Center for the Study of Law, Science, & Technology. “He always gets to the heart of the issue, and he has a wonderful way of distilling the essential question we need to be thinking of. Then, he can extrapolate and go to broader policy questions in the same paragraph.

“As he’s teaching, the students don’t even realize what an intellectual powerhouse and significant person in his field he is,” Grey says. “His stature and renown are not barriers in the classroom as they easily could be.”

Janie Magruder,
(480) 727-9052
Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law

Judy Nichols,
(480) 727-7895
Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law