I just returned from Washington, DC. My son, David, and I went to see oral arguments in the United States Supreme Court. That’s something we had never before done.
To get in, you have to stand in line in front of the building early in the morning. The first 50 to arrive receive tickets. They can leave to eat breakfast somewhere and come back at 10 a.m. for the first argument.
We missed the cut. So we stood from 7:30 until just before 10 a.m. in a line, not knowing if there would be room inside for us.
As it turned out, there was. We were ushered inside. We emptied our pockets for two security searches. Then we found seats on the back row.
The trappings of the Court surrounded us. Marble pillars. Red velvet curtains. Statues everywhere. Although there were about 200 people in the audience, as long as the doors were closed you could hear a pin drop. It was an atmosphere of reverence.
We heard two cases. Each case lasted an hour. Both involved criminal sentencing for federal offenses and the issue whether prior state offenses triggered mandatory harsher punishment.
The process works like this. The lawyers have long ago written briefs and the justices have read them. Oral arguments permit the justices to ask questions of the lawyers.
So, the lawyer for the petitioner began. He had 30 minutes and a prepared speech. After the first sentence, he was interrupted by Justice Ruth Ginsberg with a question. He never returned to his prepared comments. For 30 minutes the justices peppered him with questions. Then the lawyer for the respondent endured the same process. The day we were there, two young ladies from the Solicitor General’s office argued for the respondents.
Their performance was the height of excellence. Never have I observed more brilliant oratory. The justices, all of them well-prepared and extremely bright, asked questions about a wide range of matters. “Doesn’t our recent holding in Jones require us to rule against you?” “Are you arguing that Congress was being redundant when it included paragraphs (d) and (e) in this section?” “Can you refer me to other instances when Congress intended to incorporate state convictions into the mandatory minimum sentence provisions of federal law?” “I notice that the amicus brief filed by the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers makes an argument that you have omitted. Was that intentional?”
The lawyers, especially the Assistant Solicitors, were putting on a clinic. They instantly grasped the point of the questions and answered them with pin-pointed citations to law. Then they used those responses to support their clients’ cases. In a setting that would terrify even the most experienced and skilled attorneys, they seemed as comfortable as you or I would be discussing sports at the dinner table. A couple of times I saw one or two justices smile as if they were proud of the brilliant young advocates.
They certainly had reason to be.
This was the pinnacle of our profession. It doesn’t get any better than that.
But, that doesn’t mean we can’t aspire to excel. In fact, I believe that we must.
A morning at the United States Supreme Court certainly inspired David and me to strive all the harder for excellence.
Scott Ballard is District Attorney for the Griffin Judicial Circuit, which is made up of Fayette, Pike, Spalding and Upson counties.