Campus News

Cross examination

Visiting justice holds court with law school students

It is not every day a law student has the opportunity to pose a question, face to face, to a sitting justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.  However, students at the School of Law enjoyed their second such opportunity this academic year when Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer, on campus for the conference about Jimmy Carter’s presidency, attended a question-and-answer session at the law school. (Justice Clarence Thomas visited the law school for three days in October.)

During a 60-minute forum attended by about 125 law students and faculty, Breyer addressed topics such as his daily role on the nation’s highest court and his appointment to the court. He also answered more pointed questions, such as what impact foreign legal systems should have on the U.S. system, why the Supreme Court is hearing fewer cases and if non-lawyers should be allowed to become members of the judiciary. In describing the Supreme Court’s case selection process, Breyer said the justices look for cases where there is a need for a uniform, national interpretation of the law.

“We do not see ourselves as a correction court,” he said.

First-year law student Elizabeth C. Taxel found the justice to be “incredibly humble and down to earth.”  She was thankful he talked about the “pressures facing law students” to follow a certain career path and appreciated him emphasizing the need to give back to the community.

Additionally, Breyer said some of the best advice he had ever been given came from his father.

 “(My father said) don’t be like a bulldozer and just go straight ahead on your own path. You have to listen to other people who have a point of view . . . (and) try to do your own job the best that you can.  He said now maybe, if you do your job well, someone will notice and you’ll get a better job. On the other hand, they may not. And then, at least, you are left with the satisfaction of having done the job as best you could,” Breyer said.

Christine A. Saunders, another first-year law student, said the experience was “very refreshing” and appreciated the opportunity to ask a question.

“It’s nice that the questions were not censored,” she said.

Regarding certain court opinions attracting a lot of public reaction, Breyer said it is key for him (and the other justices) to remember that opinions actually need to be written for three audiences: “the other judges who have to apply it, the lawyers who have to be able to argue it and follow it and, in many cases, the public too because they are interested.” 

Saunders added that the experience was such an honor and that, if she or one of her schoolmates ends up arguing a case before the nation’s highest court one day, she hopes that having met two of the current sitting justices will “take some of the edge off.”