From Willey & Chamberlain partner Britt Cobb:
As I watch all of the political turmoil surrounding the United States Supreme Court due to the recent death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I have been fondly remembering my own brief experience before our Supreme Court. In 2016, I was admitted to practice in the Court and traveled to Washington, D.C. to take the oath in person. What struck me most about the experience is that the personalities of the Justices were on full display and it was a good reminder that the courts in the United States are one of the few places where citizens can see their government officials at work.
The swearing in was done at the beginning of an oral argument session in January 2016. This was just a few weeks before Justice Scalia’s unanticipated death. The Court at the time was comprised of Chief Justice Roberts and Associate Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Alito, Ginsburg, Kagan, Breyer and Sotomayor.
While it is highly unlikely that I would ever have the privilege of arguing a case in the Court, our office does file cert petitions so I needed to be admitted. There is no requirement for in-person swearing at the Supreme Court, but the full Court does administer oaths a few times per year and it was an opportunity I did not want to pass up. Supreme Court oral arguments are open to the public, and while space is limited in the historic courtroom, anyone can go on a first-come first-serve basis. My father, who is a retired federal prosecutor, attended with me.
The courtroom was packed but those of us taking the oath had a front-row seat, right behind counsel table. I was completely star struck when the Justices came out on to the bench. The Justices were sitting not much more than 20 feet away from me. Chief Justice Roberts called the session to order and before arguments, he administered the oath to us all. Then we got to watch argument in two cases.
I do not remember the details of the cases but I will never forget how it felt to be in that room with these legal giants and amazingly accomplished individuals. Chief Justice Roberts was so welcoming to all, and his warm manner put everyone at ease. He made me feel like I was in his living room watching a spirited discussion of the law.
Justice Scalia’s famous wit was on full display, along with his hearty chuckle and kind eyes. Justices Kennedy and Breyer were also incredibly warm and engaging, and both reminded me a lot of law school professors in the way they asked questions of the litigants. Justices Kagan and Sotomayor were similarly engaging, although slightly more business-like in tone. The questions coming from these Justices were so thoughtful and probing, but respectful and in no way seemed meant to belittle the litigants or their respective positions.
When Justice Ginsburg walked out to take the bench, I could hardly see her because she was so little. I recall Justice Alito, in particular, watching over her to make sure she was okay as she took her seat. But when Justice Ginsburg spoke, her voice was so strong and her thoughts so clear, despite her frail stature. She and Justice Scalia, of course, took different sides on one of the cases and their volleying questioning of the litigants was classic. But it was so civilized and good natured, even though they were clearly disagreeing on the substance.
Justice Thomas did not say anything at all, and as I understand is typical, he leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling much of the time. Justice Alito’s questions to the litigants were the only questions that were edgy in tone.
The point of all of this is to say, the Supreme Court Justices very much run the gamut in style and personality as do the judges that lawyers appear in front of daily across the country. Most judges are thoughtful and respectful, many are warm and witty, some are all business, some are not engaging at all and some are quite edgy.
It is not very often that citizens get to see their government officials work. Sure, we see them give speeches and tell us about their work, but we rarely see them in action. Being in court is different. Whether you are dealing with a minor matter in state court or appearing before the highest Court in the land arguing the Constitution, judges are doing their work right before your eyes when they are in the courtroom.
In the COVID-19 era, many court hearings are now made available via video. I encourage those who are not familiar with the courts to take a few minutes some day and watch your local, state or federal judges work. I am certain you will find it interesting and in some cases, as was my experience before the Supreme Court, inspirational. Call me for links. Britt Cobb