SCOTUS chief visits law school as part of lecture series

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The chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States was warmly greeted by a full house April 7 at Indiana University School of Law - Indianapolis at the annual James P. White Lecture on Legal Education.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.'s discussion was just two days before Justice John Paul Stevens announced he would retire from the court when the session ends this summer.

Gary Roberts, dean of the Indianapolis law school, said he was unsure how or if he was related to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. when he welcomed the audience to what he quipped was the second-toughest ticket in town that week, after the NCAA men's Division 1 championship basketball game of Butler vs. Duke.

A capacity crowd of approximately 250 prominent members of Indiana's legal community participated in the discussion in the school's courtroom while about 120 students watched a simulcast of the event as part of their class, and 50 other students, alumni, and faculty were in an overflow room watching the simulcast as well. Not to mention anyone who was watching a live webcast of the event.

C-SPAN also was on hand to film the discussion, which will likely air on the cable channel a few times in the coming weeks and eventually will be available on its Web site.

In his introduction, Chief Justice Roberts also pointed out various audience members, including Indiana Supreme Court justices, Court of Appeals and trial court judges, federal judges, various I.U. executives, the mayor of Indianapolis, the Indiana attorney general, and the lecture's namesake, a retired law professor who is known around the world for his work in the field of legal education.

During the lecture about the history of the court - comparing the Supreme Court of 2010 to 1910 and explaining the changes along the way, Chief Justice Roberts explained how these changes have, over time, strengthened the judiciary, including the public's perception of it.

For instance, the current federal courthouse wasn't built yet in 1910, and the court would meet in the Capitol Building instead. But having the architectural separation makes a difference when maintaining the ideal of the separation of powers of the judiciary, legislative, and executive branches, the chief justice said.

The architectural separation was also maintained recently when it was discussed whether there should be a way for visitors to go from the Capitol to the Supreme Court using underground tunnels. It was ultimately decided that visitors would need to physically leave the Capitol and cross the street to avoid any confusion that the two were closely linked.

He also explained the change in trial procedures including the length of time for oral arguments: in 1910, each side had 90 minutes. Currently, an entire oral argument lasts an hour.

It was also around 1910 when what is now known as the Brandeis Brief was first used when then-litigator and later Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis started using social science data and other reports in his legal briefs, which hadn't been done before then.

In 1910, when the court had a caseload of more than 1,100 cases, he said, the court was required to make a decision about every case appealed to them. It wasn't until 1925 that former president and then Supreme Court Chief Justice William Howard Taft convinced Congress to relieve SCOTUS from this requirement so they could only focus on cases with national significance. Today, the court grants cert to only about 150 cases each year.

Following his history of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Roberts took questions from the audience.

U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker asked if he would ever consider taking on a U.S. District Court case by sitting in designation, and if she offered him her entire docket, what would he choose.

He answered that he wouldn't do it "in a million years," but he would prefer a civil case because he wouldn't want to handle a criminal case where he would need to stick with federal sentencing guidelines.

He also told the story of how his predecessor William H. Rehnquist missed working at the trial level and presided over a case in the Eastern District of Virginia. He added then-Chief Justice Rehnquist was annoyed not that the 4th District Court of Appeals overturned his ruling but that the court didn't sign off on the decision so he didn't know who overturned him.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller asked the chief justice how his Indiana roots have affected him; Chief Justice Roberts was raised in northern Indiana and was a summer clerk for Ice Miller while a student at Harvard Law School.

"I'm very proud of my Midwestern roots," he said, adding people from the Midwest have a "certain openness" and prefer a "unifying approach" to disagreements.

Chief Justice Roberts said he was able to see the handwritten notes of Abraham Lincoln for the only time Lincoln argued before the SCOTUS, adding that Lincoln had remarkable penmanship.

Other audience members also asked if he thought judges were treated like celebrities, to which he replied that Judge Judy might be a celebrity but he isn't; if he thought he approached his role in ways he didn't think he would before becoming chief justice, to which he replied he hadn't; and if he still stood by his analogy of the chief justice to that of a baseball umpire, to which he replied that he did.

After addressing the courtroom audience, Chief Justice Roberts spoke with students who watched the simulcast in the overflow room and answered eight of their questions, according to Elizabeth Allington, director for external affairs for the law school. Earlier in the day, he met with students in their classes and had lunch with faculty members.

The chief justice is the third Supreme Court justice to speak at the annual lecture and the fifth SCOTUS justice to speak at the law school in the last nine years.


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