José A. Cabranes was appointed a Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1994. At the time of his appointment, he was Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, a court to which he was appointed in 1979. In 2013, he was appointed by Chief Justice Roberts to serve also on the three-judge United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review (FISCR) and, in 2018, as Presiding Judge of the FISCR.
Judge Cabranes was born in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, and at the age of five moved with his family to the South Bronx. After attending public schools in New York City, he graduated from Columbia College (A.B., 1961), Yale Law School (J.D., 1965) and the University of Cambridge, Cambridge, England (M.Litt. in International Law, 1967). He studied at Cambridge under a Kellett Research Fellowship from Columbia College and the Humanitarian Trust Studentship in Public International Law awarded by the Faculty Board of Law of the University of Cambridge.
Judge Cabranes was serving as General Counsel of Yale University when appointed to the federal bench in 1979; he was the first Puerto Rican appointed to the federal bench in the continental United States. Previously he had practiced in a New York City law firm; taught law on the full-time faculty of Rutgers University Law School and the adjunct faculty of Yale Law School; and served as Special Counsel to the Governor of Puerto Rico and as head of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico's office in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Citizenship and the American Empire (Yale University Press, 1979), a legislative history of the United States citizenship of the people of Puerto Rico, and co-author (with Kate Stith) of Fear of Judging: Sentencing Guidelines in the Federal Courts (University of Chicago Press, 1998)(Certificate of Merit of the American Bar Association, 1999), and author of articles in various law journals.
Judge Cabranes served as a Successor Trustee of Yale University (Fellow of the Yale Corporation) from 1987 to 1999, and he is now also an emeritus trustee of Colgate University and Columbia University. He has been elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation.
In 1988, Judge Cabranes was one of five Federal judges appointed by Chief Justice Rehnquist to the 15-member Federal Courts Study Committee created by Act of Congress "to examine problems facing the Federal courts and develop a long-range plan for the future of the Federal judiciary."
He was the recipient of the Learned Hand Medal for Excellence in Federal Jurisprudence of the Federal Bar Council in 2000 and, in 2019, the Philip Merrill Award of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, for his “extraordinary contribution to the advancement of liberal education, core curricula, and the teaching of Western civilization and American history."
Before his appointment to the federal bench, Judge Cabranes served as Chairman of the Board of Directors of two major Hispanic civil rights organizations: Aspira of New York, the educational agency that helps inner-city Hispanic youth prepare for college, and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (of which he was a founding member).