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A day at the Supreme Court with Justice Alito

April 23rd, 2009

Through the kindness of the Italian-American Studies Program here at John Carroll, I was lucky enough to join two students, two professors and two faculty members from the Italian-American Studies program to be guests of Justice Samuel Alito and listen to oral arguments.

Etched in the marble at the front of the Court are the words “equal justice under law.” As I sat in the courtroom that morning, those inscribed words are precisely what the Justices would be ensuring.

Though the Court is open to the public, its relatively small gallery makes it almost impossible to listen to the arguments.

The experience was one that I will never forget. The highlight of the day was the 15 minutes we were able to spend with Justice Alito in his chambers immediately following the oral argument.

Though his chambers are small, the walls are lined with law books and autographed sports memorabilia, with a beautiful wooden desk as the centerpiece. Justice Alito could not have been more polite or gracious.

His hospitality was certainly exceptional. He described the complexity of the case we heard that morning and the difficulty of being a Justice, as well.

The case we observed was Jack Gross v. FBL Financial Services and dealt with age discrimination.

The first two lawyers arguing spoke for only 30 seconds before a Justice interrupted them mid-sentence to ask a question.

Eric Schnapper, a veteran lawyer representing Jack Gross, was literally left speechless and visibly flustered by numerous questions raised by the Justices.

Carter Phillips, the lawyer representing FBL (and the person I rode in the elevator with to a security checkpoint earlier that morning), seemed so thrown off by the Justices’ berating questions that he called the wrong person Justice Ginsburg – twice.

The second mistake caused Justice Clarence Thomas to laugh out loud in the middle of Phillips’ argument, quite a feat for a man who rarely talks.

The lawyers were not the only entertaining people in the Court that morning. Justice Stephen Breyer, who is known for his peculiar hypothetical questions, did not disappoint.

In an attempt to understand what would happen if Jack Gross was fired for reasons other than age, Justice Breyer asked, “The dam is a nuisance. We now show, to prove that it’s a nuisance, that it played a role in the death of my fish. I mean, isn’t that the end of the case?” Imagine being a lawyer who graduated at the top his class being forced to explain to Justice Breyer who is responsible for the death of his fish.

Think you could handle it? Well, Phillips responded by referring to Justice Breyer accidentally as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, so don’t feel bad if you think you would cave under the pressure.

My time at the Court was short, yet remarkable. Though the minds in that courtroom are undoubtedly some of the brightest, it was fascinating to see how easily the lawyers can be shaken and how witty and amicable some of the Justices seemed.

Don’t get me wrong, everyone at the Court that day was serious and meant business, but their actions showed them in a more personable way. The Justices could be funny and the lawyers at times seemed scared.

What is more incredible, however, is that it was just another day at our nation’s highest court.