In celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the Dean Jerome Prince Memorial Evidence Competition this spring, the Law School was delighted to welcome Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. as one of the presiding judges for the final round held on April 10, 2010.
Joining Justice Alito on the bench was the Honorable Margaret McKeown of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and the Honorable Victoria A. Graffeo of the New York State Court of Appeals. The judges spoke highly of the outstanding arguments made by the two finalist teams - Florida State University and Santa Clara University, and ultimately awarded Florida State top honors.
Earlier that day, Justice Alito met with BLS students, faculty, and the federal and state judges who judged the semi-final rounds to talk about a “day in the life” of a Supreme Court Justice.
“Justice Samuel Alito gave us all a rare look at life inside the Supreme Court,” noted Professor Joel Gora, who was in attendance. “In a relaxed and friendly manner, he discussed issues like the role of oral advocacy in influencing the Justices’ decisions, the impact of friend of the court briefs on the Court’s thinking, whether the Justices visit in each other’s chambers very much to talk over cases, and how the Court’s reputation for a high degree of collegiality fares in light of the sometimes very sharp exchanges that appear in some of their majority and dissenting opinions.”
Several attendees were curious about amicus briefs, asking what makes briefs most helpful to the justices. Justice Alito noted that most amicus briefs are helpful, but he also pointed out that as many as 20 may be submitted for a single, high-profile case, and the number has increased substantially in the last several years.
Other attendees wanted to know more about the Justice’s working style, and how opinions are drafted. “I’m a very fussy writer,” admitted Justice Alito, adding that the opinions “undergo extensive editing, but it is helpful if I have the basic building blocks all in the right order.” He said, however, that he tended to write dissents and concurring views by himself, as these are more personalized statements. He also took a moment for making light: Responding to comments on the unwieldy length of Supreme Court opinions, the Justice quipped “We’ll agree not to write 20-page opinions if law professors limit the length of law review articles!”
On the issue of oral versus written arguments, Justice Alito said that oral arguments rarely cause him to change his views. But, he added, “Even in 9-0 decisions, there are still good arguments on both sides, and this is why they are before the Supreme Court.” Whether or not they ultimately change his mind, he explained, these opinions are a “helpful last step in the decision-making process.” Asked what makes an effective oral argument, Justice Alito responded that the best oral arguments should not raise new issues; rather they should present the same argument in the brief, but in a different way, so that it has power as an orally presented view.
Justice Alito and his audience also addressed the atmosphere of today’s often divided Supreme Court. “We get used to colleagues writing strongly about how wrong a Justice is,” he said, adding that they had all learned to cultivate a generally collegial atmosphere in spite of differing views.
Justice Alito’s enthusiasm for his work prompted one audience member to ask whether there was any downside to being a Supreme Court Justice. He was quick to answer, “I love what I do,” and found it hard to think of ways in which he did not.
“Justice Alito's comments about his work and his responsibilities were enlightening and instructive. I closely follow the Supreme Court but I still came away from the session with new ideas and perspectives,” noted Professor Jason Mazzone, who attended the talk. “When we read and critique judicial opinions, we sometimes forget that the members of the Court are lawyers who are doing their best to interpret and apply the law. Hearing from Justice Alito brought to life the challenges involved in deciding Supreme Court cases in a way that reading words on a page rarely does.”
Read more about this year’s Prince Competition.
View video of the final argument.