SCOTUS visits fascinating

April 8, 2010
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Reporter Michael W. Hoskins wrote this post.

You can always expect a legal community showing when one of the nation’s top jurists visits. That was the case Wednesday when Chief Justice John Roberts made his way to the Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis.

He was the fifth justice from the Supreme Court of the United States to visit the school in some capacity during the past decade, the third since 2002 as part of the ongoing James P. White lecture series. The others were: Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 2002; Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2007, and now the chief justice. Justice Anthony Kennedy spoke at the law school dedication in 2001, while Justice Samuel Alito visited in September 2007.

In my own experience, I’ve managed to see and hear four justices speak since moving to Indiana six years ago – Justices Ginsburg, Alito, O’Connor, and now Chief Justice Roberts.

Justice Ginsburg focused on the historical role of women in the courts and Chief Justice Roberts focused on the high court’s historical evolution in the past century. Justice Alito came as part of a different event to discuss the sometimes-stressed relationships between Congress and the courts. Justice O’Connor spoke about globalization, saying, “Understanding international law is no longer a specialty, it is a duty. We will rely increasingly on foreign and international law in resolving domestic legal questions.

Personally, I heard her speak last year at a St. Joseph Bar Association event in South Bend about judicial independence and merit selection– a topic that she’s passionately focused on in her retirement.

While I’ve not personally witnessed Justice John Paul Stevens speak, he is a regular visitor at the 7th Circuit Conference and Bar Association annual meetings and often talks about his experiences and the past year’s happenings. Last year, he wasn’t able to attend the event in Indianapolis.

All were interesting and fascinating events to attend, with a high-ranking roster of Who’s Who from the Hoosier legal community at both state and federal levels. But by comparison, Chief Justice Roberts seemed to offer less substance than those in the past. It seemed to be more of a show than a substantive speech. Growing up in Indiana, Chief Justice Roberts spent little time addressing the current conditions or more pressing issues of the time as some of his colleagues have done.

He also touched on his Hoosier roots, and it was noted that his first real legal job was as a summer clerkship at Indianapolis firm Ice Miller.

Obviously, neither he nor the other visiting active justices could talk about specific cases or legal issues they might someday face. But the Q-and-A session following the lecture brought some interesting tidbits, as he talked about his Midwestern roots and how that impacts the courts, his thoughts about possibly sitting in designation at the trial court level, and even a point about the possible retirement of longtime Justice Stevens, who could soon announce whether he plans to retire this year. That latter point was that Justice Stevens’ retirement could be happening “soon,” though there was no expansion on that.

One of the most intriguing questions came from U.S. Judge Sarah Evans Barker in the Southern District of Indiana, who asked the chief justice about whether he’d ever consider presiding over a case at the lower level.

“To be fair, I wouldn’t do it in a million years,” he said, noting that his predecessor had done it.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist presided over a Virginia case and was later reversed by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. But the chief justice said what bothered his predecessor the most wasn’t the fact that he was reversed but that the appellate court had done it in a per curiam decision so no one had signed their name to it.

If he were ever to sit in designation at the District level, Chief Justice Roberts said he’d want a civil case and not a criminal case. From his appellate experience, he’d want to avoid sentencing and mandatory minimum sentences that he viewed as “gut-wrenching” decisions for a judge to decide.

Still, despite what any particular justice talks about during their presentations, it’s always a pleasure to hear from someone who sits or has sat at the nation’s highest court.
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