G’town students court the Supremes

November 1, 2007

Though not wearing costumes, the 17 Georgetown students huddled around the GUTS bus stop in front of Leo’s at 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday had woken up early for a special Halloween treat: a private meeting with Associate Justice Stephen Breyer.

The students, all members of On the Docket, the Georgetown Supreme Court Society, spent the Metro ride to Capitol South gossiping about the Justices’ quirks and listening to Pat Flynn’s (COL ’09) stories about meeting Senators Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the tunnels under the Capitol.

Once in the Supreme Court, students were led to the East Conference Room, an ornate room with an imposing high-back chair. After a few minutes, Justice Breyer entered and, ignoring the formal chair, sat on a desk and leaned back casually.

“His posture was really relaxed,” Solomiya Pyatkovska (COL ’08) said. “It wasn’t like he was lecturing, he was discussing.”

Much of the discussion focused on Danforth v. Minnesota, the case the Justices would hear later that morning. It deals with the retroactive application of an earlier court ruling on videotaped testimony.

“He did an incredible job of explaining a very complex case,” On the Docket Co-President Paul Cohen (COL ’09) said. “He put it in terms that were easy to understand. He seemed pretty normal, really approachable, with no air of superiority.”

Breyer’s judicial approach, as articulated in his 2005 book Active Liberty: Interpreting Our Democratic Constitution, is often contrasted with that of Georgetown alum Associate Justice Antonin Scalia (COL ’57). Breyer emphasizes the purpose and consequences of controversial provisions, whereas Scalia follows a more textualist approach.

The difference between the two Justices was showcased in that day’s oral arguments. While questioning the prosecutor, Breyer mused on the philosophical implications of the case.

“Metaphysically, this Court has no right to make new laws,” he said.

“Don’t get hung up on metaphysics,” Scalia joked.

Many of the students found the interaction between the Justices to be the most interesting aspect of the trial. During the prosecutor’s statements, Breyer and Associate Justice Clarence Thomas were spotted whispering to each other. The wit of the Justices, directed at each other or unlucky lawyers, was the most entertaining part of the case.

“Scalia’s hilarious,” Pyatkovska said. “And Kennedy’s his partner in crime. Politically, I’m as far from Scalia possible, but I’d like to hang with him.”

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