On Friday September 7, 2012, the University of Michigan Law School dedicated its new South Building, an impressive new facility that beautifully complements the school’s venerable Law Quadrangle (see picture below). U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan delivered the keynote address at the dedication ceremony. (I attended the event because it coincided with my 30th law school class reunion.) Prior to the ceremony, Justice Kagan appeared on the stage with Michigan Law School Dean Evan Caminker for a question and answer session. The session is summarized below.
Kagan has been serving on the Court since August 2010, after a relatively short stint as Solicitor General. She previously served as Dean of Harvard Law School, following her service in various positions in the Clinton White House. She began her academic career at the University of Chicago Law School, after her judicial clerkship with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Several of the initial questions for Justice Kagan concerned the way the Court has changed since her days as a judicial clerk. She noted that the Court is a “slow-moving institution’ Information technology “has not reached the Court,” and the justices still communicate with each other using written memoranda. The practices have not changed with technology because overall the Court “works well as an institution” and it has developed practices that “allow us to do our job.”
Justice Kagan did identify two things about the Court that have changed. First, a Supreme Court bar has developed, consisting of specialized lawyers who “understand what the exercise is all about” and who are “extremely good at it.” It means that the justices “get answers to our questions” and can “engage in the kind of dialog that we all want.” She commented that with the experienced practitioners, “there’s a kind of comfort level” and “informality.” She noted that states “are really getting their act together,” and that the quality of the representation of the states’ interests “has really gone up.”
She added that it is” frustrating” when “we don’t get good lawyers.” She noted one particularly area of weakness “on the criminal defense side” She commented that she hoped in the future that the criminal defense bar would do something along the lines of what the states have done.
Another thing Justice Kagan said has changed is that Court now has “a more active bench.” She noted that the current practices began with Justice Antonin Scalia who “wanted to try to make the hour more useful.” All of the more recent appointees, she observed, are more active questioners than the justices they replaced, noting as an example that she asks more questions than did Justice Stevens (whose place she took on the Court). She did allow, with respect to the justices’ questions, that it may be getting “into the place where” the level of questioning “is too much.” She said that Chief Justice Roberts is an effective “traffic cop,” but she wonders whether “he should have to do that,” adding that perhaps “we should step it back a little.”
She did say that the oral arguments do matter. She said that the briefs are more important, but that the arguments “can make a difference—both ways, you can sway or you can lose a case.” The lawyers know the crux of the case, and “when you hear them say it,” the justices ask themselves – particularly in cases where they are not yet sure where they stand – “how does that sound to me?” She added that oral argument can make a difference even sometimes in cases where going into the argument "you think you have it figured out.”
Another difference at the Court that she noted comparing to what she observed as a law clerk is that there are differences in the amount of communication around the Court. Her observation is that the level of communication between the justices outside of the conference has changed. She added that she has noted that even in the conference, there is a great deal of “back and forth,” particularly when they justices have not “yet arrived at a theory that can get five votes.” She added the observation that “it is a great court full of thoughtful and smart people.”
In response to a question, she commented on the role of the judicial clerks. She said that they “do what they ought to be doing.” They “are not deciding cases,” adding that the “notion” that has been advanced in certain parts of the popular press that judicial clerks get involved in deciding cases is “an unfounded idea.” She said one very important role that the clerks play is helping to winnow the thousands of petitions the court receive, adding that the clerks “principal role” is helping to “figure out what cases to take.” The clerks sort through the 10,000 petitions to “identify “the 200 to 300 cases worth looking at.” She added that they do “an extremely good job” at that.
She took pains to emphasize that she writes her own opinions, and while she asks her clerks to draft position statements, she warns her clerks that “if you see a single sentence you wrote in the Supreme Court Reporter, that will be a big day in your life.”
She did acknowledge that it does have an effect when the Court takes up a high profile case. She noted that it is “hard not to be aware there’s a lot of scrutiny.” She said that she “doesn’t think it affects the way we go about our work and they way we do our function.” Those who believe that the things they are saying “have some effect” on the Court “would be disappointed.” Even if there is “political controversy,” it “does not affect our consideration of the cases.” She felt that in a democracy, people “should be free to criticize the Court” but the Court “shouldn’t be pressured to do things,” and she is “100% certain we are not pressured.”
A student questioner raised the concern that recent polls had shown that the public respect for the Court as an institution has declined and that there are increasing concerns that the Court is deciding cases with decision splits determined according to the party of the Presidents that appointed the various justices. The student asked what the Court could do to eliminate these perceptions.
Justice Kagan responded (noting, after a lengthy pause, that it was a “very serious question”) that she is aware of the polls. She commented that in general people’s “trust in all institutions has declined,” so the decline in the public respect for the Court may “not have anything to do with what the Court has done.” She did say that she “wouldn’t want to discount the feeling that the Court has become divided politically.” She added that “it is really bad thing if the public thinks” cases are being decided on a political basis, and that it is “worth thinking about why this is and what can be done.”
One reason for this public view may be the number of 5-4 decisions. The cases that are decided by a 5-4 vote only represent about ten out of the 80 cases decided in a term, but some of these are “important cases.” The concerns can arise when there is perception that the votes are “consonant” with “who has nominated the justices,” something that “has not been the case historically.” She stressed that “there is not … a single vote that is made because of whether I like the President or not, or because I do or do not want to help one party or another.” She acknowledged that given the various justices’ different backgrounds and points of view, “we approach cases in different way” adding that “we may have different views on how we regard precedents.” It would be, she allowed, better “if there were fewer of these [5-4] decisions.” But as “each case comes along, you have to decide it, you can’t decide it in a way to avoid these kinds of splits.”
She noted that many people believe that the Court is polarized, often because of colloquy or commentary that may appear in published opinions. She said that one justice advised her that “if you take those things personally, you are going to have a long life tenure.” She understands that some people may read statements in some opinions and think “they must hate each other.” She said that, to the contrary, “we like each other a lot,” that the Court is “quite collegial,” that all of her colleagues are “quite warm.” The disagreement that occurs is “part of the job,” and she believes that all of the justices “are operating in good faith.” Besides, she noted, “life tenure is long” and it “would not be pleasant or useful to hold big grudges.”
Justice Kagan noted, in response to a question, that there are now three female justices and that it “would be even better if there were five” (a comment that drew audience applause). She said, however, that it makes “precious little difference in what happens in the conference room.” The value she sees from the presences of women on the Court is that it “changes how the Court looks to the outside world.”
When asked her views about the possibility of cameras in the Supreme Court’s courtroom she said that before she went on the Court she would have said, “Sure, why not?” She believes that “transparency is good.” However, now that she is on the Court, she wonders whether the presence of the cameras might “make me think about how I ask a question.” She also noted that following the oral arguments in the health care case, the Court issued audio tapes of the arguments, and almost immediately parts of the arguments were made into political advertisements. She worries that if there were video of the arguments, there would be much greater use of that type. She is “hopeful” that other courts will experiment to see what works best, but “wouldn’t volunteer the Court to be the first.”
She did have some interesting comments on her role as the most junior member of the Court. Because she has the shortest tenure on the bench, she does have certain duties. One is that she must answer the door if someone knocks while the justices are meeting in conference, and she is also responsible for taking notes in conference (two duties that she notes have a certain incompatibility). She added that she also serves on the Court’s cafeteria committee, where one of her greatest accomplishments has been to arrange to have a frozen yogurt machine installed in the cafeteria. (This statement drew applause from the audience, with respect to which Justice Kagan noted that “That was the reaction of the Court staff as well.”)
The New South Building at the University of Michigan Law School::
The Pre-Game Ceremony from the Michigan-Air Force Football Game: You have to watch this short but totally awesome video tape of an event that occured during the pre-game ceremony at the Michigan-Air Force Football Game on Saturday. The event was even more awesome live because it was completely unexpected;there was absolutely no warning of what was about to happen.