A Day at the Supreme Court

December 1, 2008

M.L., 1L

As a California boy, I got awfully excited when I discovered that I would be living on the East coast, where there are so many little states close together -- I could visit my friends in Boston, Philadelphia, New York and even Washington D.C. by just hoping on a train for an hour or two. All told, it's added up to one weekend in New Haven out of the past ten. Yes, Yale Law School is probably the only law school where you have the time and location to do such traveling.

As it turns out, my most memorable traveling experience thus far happened on a Wednesday and not on a weekend.

On a Wednesday this semester, Paul Gewirtz, my small group professor, arranged for our class to travel down to Washington D.C. to attend a session at the Supreme Court.

After several hours of bonding on Amtrak and then spending the night with various friends, we met up at the Supreme Court to listen to oral arguments.

One of our written assignments for this term is about a case titled Pleasant Grove City v. Summum (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/11/washington/11sect.html?hp), and we were in attendance because the case was being argued before the Supreme Court that day. As we watched two bright lawyers get thoroughly dissected (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/13/washington/13sect.html) by nine brilliant justices, we got a sense for how the arguments played out and how they might be put to use in our own writing.

Along the way, we saw that the traditional "politics" of the bench are not nearly so firm as the media would like to tell. For example, Scalia is indeed absolutely terrifying as a Justice, but only bilaterally; Justices Thomas and Breyer -- who often disagree -- were discussing something and chuckling jovially quite often. Moreover, justices often go out of their way to corner a lawyer who is dodging another "opposing" justice's questions, as Justice Souter did for Justice Alito.

Afterwards, our professor arranged a meeting for the class with Justice Breyer. He talked to our group of thirteen about the Court -- how did they decide which cases to take? What does he look for in a clerk? How often do judges change their minds as the case proceeds? He answered our questions while exchanging good-natured jabs with Professor Gewirtz, making jokes like “Is he teaching you constitutional law, or Chinese history?” Most of us, however, were a little too awestruck to ask anything comprehensible. After a couple quick photographs at the SCOTUS steps, and a stop at one of our classmate's favorite bars, we packed onto a surprisingly comfortable train for the ride back home.

Needless to say, most of us weren't very well prepared for class the next morning.