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Saks joins ranks of ASU's most distinguished scholars


May 05, 2009

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. I liked school. I was taking it all in" said Saks, a professor at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law and the ASU department of psychology.

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 on Friday, May 1. The affable professor 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.

"Professor Saks's work is pioneering, with broad social impact," said ASU Provost and Executive Vice President Elizabeth D. Capaldi. "His research has altered legal scholarship and the practice of law at the highest level by fundamentally changing the way scientific evidence is admitted and received in the courtroom. He is also a talented teacher, and we are fortunate to have him at ASU."

Paul Schiff Berman, Dean of the College of Law, called 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 said. 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, the Dean said.

"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 said. "In addition, he is an extraordinary mentor."

Saks, a native of Philadelphia, 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 credited his melding of the two disciplines to "accidental encounters with welcoming, supportive, curious people across disciplinary lines."

More than 30 years ago, as a graduate student at Ohio State University, Saks was determined to do something useful with social psychology, but didn't know how to proceed. A conversation with a law student who was searching for answers to questions about human behavior that had been debated in U.S. Supreme Court opinions began to sketch a road map.

"The empirical questions at the heart of the cases that this law student was digging into - the effects of varying the decision rule (the degree of consensus) under which jurors were required to decide cases, and the numerical size of the decision-making group - became the subject of my doctoral dissertation," Saks recalled.

Soon after, Saks knew he was on the right track, when an award, scrawled on notebook paper by fellow graduate students and taped to his office door, declared his project the "Best Social Psychological Research." People other than social psychologists would care about what the results showed, the students told him.

"I realized then that knowledge and methods existed in social and behavioral science that could be helpful to the law, and also that there were questions that arose in law that social scientists had not thought of, and therefore had not conducted research on," he said. "So law was a place where my field could be helpful. And law could be a rich source of research questions."

Saks' attitudes were further validated when his dissertation won an award from the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues in 1975 and later, when his research was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court. In all, the court has cited his research and scholarship in five of its cases.

"My research suggested that the U.S. Supreme Court was in error in thinking that it made no difference what size juries were or whether verdicts had to be unanimous or not," he said. "The court has not taken the opportunity to reverse itself, though empirical researchers and legal scholars are all but unanimous now that the court had it wrong."

A faculty member at Boston College Law School helped cement the next building block in Saks' career. Saks had proposed teaching a seminar at Boston College, where he was an assistant professor of psychology, to both psychology and law students. The former would learn about the law, and the latter would learn about empirical research.

Charles "Buzzy" Baron, then the law school's associate dean, enthusiastically supported Saks' proposal, and sat in on the seminar several times. The following year, Saks was asked to teach a course on understanding empirical research methods and statistics at the law school.

"It was a time of experimentation, of doing things new," said Baron, still a professor at Boston College Law School. "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. Michael's research on the jury would replace people's hunches on how juries work."

Asked to consider the impact of Saks' work on law and society, a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. immediately came to Baron's mind: "For the rational study of law, the blackletter man may be the man of the present, but the man of the future is the man of statistics and the master of economics."

"Michael is a very clear, logical thinker, and he's best at really thinking things through and then writing them down in crystal clear prose," said Baron, who collaborated with Saks on the book, The Use-Nonuse-Misuse of Applied Social Research in the Courts.

In addition to his scholarship on juries, Saks is well 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 entry into this field was prompted by Robert Hallisey, a Massachusetts trial judge who arranged for the two of them to tour the state's crime lab in the late 1970s.

"We were surprised to find so little science in the forensic science we were being introduced to," Saks said. "I felt there wasn't enough there there to receive the deference it was receiving. I got curious about it."

Saks began researching, writing and speaking out about the history and nature of forensic science, and his message 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," he said. "As time went by, and more scholars looked at it, the number of people questioning wide areas of forensic science grew, though we were regarded as a small group of crazy people."

Perhaps the ultimate vindication came in February, when a committee of the National Academies of Science issued a blockbuster report criticizing most such forensic science as the product of shoddy science and poorly tested practices that must be upgraded and standardized. The report cites Saks' work 16 times.

"The Academy's report was a nice bit of icing on the cake," he said, in typical modest fashion.

With equal gusto, Saks tackled other research topics early in his career, notably, the role of expert witnesses in trials and sentencing guidelines, while on an assignment at the National Center for State Courts. Increasingly curious about understanding law from the inside and wanting to become a more independent scholar, he then took a sabbatical to enroll in the Master of Studies in Law at Yale Law School.

"I got a good look there at teachers who cared deeply about their teaching and had enormous respect and affection for their students," he said. "So, in addition to learning law, I learned a lot about teaching."

Invitations to teach at law school started rolling in. Saks visited at the University of Virginia, Georgetown University Law Center and Ohio State University. At Virginia, Saks met David Faigman, then a graduate psychology student with whom he would eventually collaborate on a groundbreaking book about law and scientific evidence.

"We were thinking about the needs of the law and how it was integrated with science, and how important it was for judges to understand underlying scientific evidence and to be able to incorporate that knowledge into their decision making," said Faigman, now the John F. Digardi Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. "When the Supreme Court issued the Daubert standard in 1993, we decided now was the time, since the decision said judges have to be the gatekeepers and understand the methodology and principles underlying expert opinions, to write that book. 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."

The book, Modern Scientific Evidence: The Law and Science of Expert Testimony, co-authored by David H. Kaye, a Regents' Professor at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, and Joseph Sanders, the A.A. White Professor at the University of Houston Law Center, was first published in 1997. It has been updated and revised  five times since, with the addition of Edward Cheng, of Brooklyn College Law School, as a co-author.

"Michael is as gracious a co-author, in terms of sharing ideas, as I could imagine," Faigman said. "He's incredibly giving of his brilliance, and not jealous of ideas. His aim is to advance the ball down the field, and he's almost insensitive as to whether he gets credit. He's also very conscientious about getting things done on time and being detail-oriented. I sometimes wonder if, on the order of the movie, Multiplicity, there maybe is more than one Michael Saks running around because he's a brilliant, effective multi-tasker."

Those qualities extend to Saks' numerous contributions over the years to dozens of national associations, centers, councils and task forces. Shari Seidman Diamond, a longtime friend and colleague, served with him on the Law School Admission Council's Grants Subcommittee, of which Saks was a chairman. They've also shared the microphone at many conferences together, and collaborated on major research studying how jurors react to evidence relevant to compensatory and punitive damages.

"He is an extraordinary multitasker," said Diamond, the Howard J. Trienens Professor at Northwestern University Law School. "I have known him as a co-author, as an editor, and as a fellow committee member. In all of these capacities, he has been outstanding. He is a true scholar who tackles complex questions and takes the research wherever it leads."

Saks, whose research earned the American Psychological Association's award for "Distinguished Contributions to Psychology in the Public Interest," said his best work has had a counter intuitive or 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 said. "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 said.

Betsy Grey, a professor at the College of Law who, like Saks, is a Faculty Fellow in the College's Center for the Study of Law, Science, & Technology, has interacted with him as a scholar, professor and colleague. Grey currently is working with Saks, and Roselle Wissler, also a Center Faculty Fellow and the College's Lodestar Dispute Resolution Program Research Director, on a study of the federal Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.

"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," Grey said. "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."

Saks recently taught a session of Grey's Mass Tort Litigation course, where he presented difficult concepts, such as the sampling techniques that courts use in big class-action lawsuits, to law students who typically have little familiarity with statistics. His method was logical and understandable.

"And he's teaching, the students don't even realize what an intellectual powerhouse and significant person in his field he is," Grey said. "His stature and renown are simply not barriers in the classroom as it easily could be."

Shortly after Saks arrived at ASU, Nick Schweitzer, then a psychology student, sought him out, having become intrigued by his research. Saks accepted him as a graduate student/research associate, but it wasn't until Schweitzer began attending conferences around the country that he found out what a superstar Saks was. Saks had never let on.

"I was very impressed with how he handled and approached these two distinct fields and brought them together - I hadn't seen it quite to that extent before," said Schweitzer, now an assistant professor in ASU's New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. "He taught me to be a good faculty member and a good researcher. I'm quite sure I would not be where I am now had I not had his guidance."

As Schweitzer's doctoral adviser, Saks gave him leeway to do things his own way and at his own pace, understanding that was how Schweitzer was most productive. "He figured out what I needed, and it was a natural fit that a lot of my colleagues, unfortunately, didn't have," Schweitzer said.

As an Arizona Court of Appeals Judge, Susan Ehrlich already had established her legal career when she returned to the College of Law to obtain a Master of Laws in Biotechnology and Genomics. Ehrlich delayed her graduation for a year in order to take a course, Law, Litigation and Science, from Saks last spring.

"His class is very much a dialogue, and his passion for the law, particularly law and science, shows in his teaching," she said. "There's a lot of knowledge he wants to impart, but his way is very much that of a busy two-way street."

And as good as Saks is with veteran lawyers and judges in class, he is even better with 20-something, first-year law students like Lyn Gulley, who took his Criminal Law course this spring. Saks has a knack for grabbing students' attention, Gulley said, noting he read the students transcripts of wire taps of impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and asked them to think about potential crimes the politician had committed.

"I didn't realize he'd taught as much as he had because the time flies by, and he's just so entertaining," she said. "From Day One in class, you feel you are with him. He doesn't talk at you, he wants to lead you along every step of the way."

Saks is grateful to ASU for the Regents' Professorship, but he will not bask in its glory for long. There is research to be done - for the National Institutes of Justice, he is looking into the psychology of forensic-science testimony with Jonathan "Jay" Koehler, a College of Law professor, and Dawn McQuiston-Surrett, an ASU assistant psychology professor, and for the MacArthur Foundation's Law and Neuroscience Research Network, he and Schweitzer are examining the effects on jurors of neuroscience expert testimony. There are books to be written - perhaps on the past/present/future of forensic science and the value of social science research. And he would like to play a role in helping effect change in the forensic science community, changes that have been demanded by the National Academy of Sciences' committee.

Years ago, having grown from a curious boy into a questioning young man, Saks cracked open a fortune cookie and pulled out the bit of paper inside. "It said, 'The more you know, the less you believe'," he said. "That really is true."

Janie Magruder, Jane.Magruder@asu.edu
(480) 727-9052
Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law