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Vance first woman to chair major-litigation panel

November 05, 2014

TLC 1114 JudgeVance400

Chief Judge Sarah Vance (L ’78) of U.S. District Court in New Orleans, now chairs the powerful Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation. Here, she listens to a Tulane Law student argue a motion as part of the school’s Intersession boot camp teaching real-world skills.

Photo by Digital Roux Photography 

The hearings U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance (L ’78) of New Orleans presides over Dec. 4 will focus on some of the testiest legal disputes in the country.

They involve suits over the antidepressant Cymbalta filed against manufacturer Eli Lilly in 15 states; litigation stemming from a security breach of Home Depot’s customer data; complaints about Whole Foods’ marketing of Greek yogurt; a fight embroiling major telephone carriers MCI, AT&T, Sprint and QWEST and spanning 19 states.

Vance has 20 years’ service as a federal trial judge, the past six as chief of Louisiana’s Eastern District. Now, she holds one of the most powerful positions in the judiciary as chair of the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation.

Vioxx. Faulty Ford ignition switches. Chinese drywall. Pelvic mesh implants. Facebook’s IPO. Even Family Dollar Stores’ employment practices. Most of the country’s big suits, involving thousands of claims filed in multiple states, land in the MDL. Its seven judges determine whether to consolidate cases before a single federal judge for pretrial proceedings. The key considerations are whether the claims have enough common ground and would be unmanageable if left in separate courts all over the country.

“It’s a very interesting process, and it’s become integral to how complex litigation is handled” in the United States, Vance said.

The panel, which meets six times a year, doesn’t decide the merits of any of the cases, but its rulings influence how litigation plays out and how much of courts’ and litigants’ resources are consumed.

“Some of the most important cases in the country have been centralized by the panel,” Vance said. The goal is to allow sprawling legal proceedings to be conducted in a way that is more convenient and efficient for the litigants. 

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts appointed Vance to the MDL panel in 2013, and she became its lead judge in mid-October. Two other Tulanians have served on the panel since Congress created it in 1968. Legendary Judge John Minor Wisdom (L ’29) of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was one of the first appointees and was chair in 1975-78. U.S. District Judge Morey Sear (L ’50) was a member in 2000-02. Vance is the first woman to head the panel.

“I’m thrilled to be doing it,” she said. “You could not ask for a higher-quality group of people to work with.”

Tulane Law Professor Ed Sherman, who has written extensively on complex litigation, said Vance's appointment as chair "is a great honor and an indication of confidence in her abilities."

Vance is well familiar with complicated litigation. She was a partner at Stone Pigman focusing on antitrust and commercial litigation when President Bill Clinton nominated her for the federal bench in 1994. She also has received several assignments from the MDL; most recently she’s been overseeing all the pretrial work in a major antitrust case involving more than 30 class actions.

It’s no exaggeration to call her one of the country’s most influential federal judges. She also is serving a five-year term on the American Law Institute Council, which helps steer the most prominent law-reform group in the United States. And she’s president-elect of the Federal Bar Association's New Orleans Chapter.

Vance also serves on the Tulane Law School Dean’s Advisory Board and is a faculty member for the annual Intersession boot camp, presiding over students’ motion arguments in court. On Nov. 14, she’s being honored in the 2014 class of New Orleans CityBusiness “Women of the Year.” 


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