Supreme Court Seminar: Our Day at the High Court

L ZimmermanBy: Liesel Zimmerman, Class of 2018

In Professor Neal Devins’ Supreme Court Seminar, third-year students get an up-close and personal look at the Court and the accomplished attorneys who argue before it. I count myself fortunate to be among the 3Ls who have had the opportunity to take this unique course. After a semester of hearing from incredible guest speakers at the law school, we made our way to Washington, D.C. for the capstone experience of the Seminar: a visit to the Supreme Court.

We spent the first day of our two-day trip at The William & Mary Washington Center, where we had the privilege of hearing from four prominent legal professionals. Our first speaker was Judge Brett Kavanaugh of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Judge Kavanaugh, who is featured on President Trump’s short list of potential Supreme Court nominees, explained how he views his role as judge as being that of an umpire. He must be completely impartial and use his best judgment to determine a case’s outcome. Judge Kavanaugh also gave the class tips on brief writing, and encouraged us to cleanly organize our writing and use themes to tie our arguments together.

We were next joined by Beth Brinkmann, who was a familiar face for our class. In September, Ms. Brinkmann participated in the 2017 Supreme Court Preview, which is hosted annually by the William & Mary Institute of Bill of Rights Law. She served as Counsel for the Respondent in a moot court of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. Ms. Brinkmann shared insight about her time arguing before the Supreme Court as an Assistant Solicitor General, and now as a partner at Covington & Burling. She also gave a thoughtful commentary on the rise of women in the legal profession.

Miguel Estrada kicked off the afternoon session with a candid look at his tenure before the Court. He shared about his experience clerking for Justice Kennedy and the way it influenced his style of presenting oral arguments. He also explained his preparation strategy: he carefully crafts his arguments to appeal to each Justice on an individual level.

Paul M. Smith, of the Campaign Legal Center, rounded out our procession of distinguished speakers. He answered questions about his win in Lawrence v. Texas – the case that made him a well-known defender of civil rights for the LGBT community. He also spoke on his involvement in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, the “violent video game case” where he successfully advocated for the first amendment rights of video game producers. Mr. Smith also touched on his involvement in several high-profile redistricting cases. Needless to say, our discussion with Mr. Smith was fascinating!

When our class gathered on the steps of the Supreme Court the following morning, our excitement was palpable – we were like giddy children on Christmas morning. We made our way into the Courtroom and eagerly waited for the Justices to make their grand entrance. After having studied them for so long, it was incredible to see the Justices in person and to watch them in action. That day, the Court heard argument for Patchak v. Zinke, a statutory interpretation case implicating the separation of powers. Predictably, Justice Thomas was the only one who did not ask a question. Justice Kagan was admirably relentless, requiring the advocates to answer tough questions without giving them an easy way out. Justice Ginsburg was her enigmatic self – poised at the edge of her seat to raise concerns to the advocates. And Justice Gorsuch added to the conversation, continuing to establish his persona on the Court. The hour of argument passed quickly, and following Petitioner’s rebuttal, the Justices swiftly retreated to their chambers.

After oral argument, we were ushered into the Lawyers’ Lounge, where advocates customarily await their turns at the podium. There, we had a conversation with Principal Deputy Solicitor General Jeff Wall. He shared about his experience clerking for Justice Thomas, and his time in private practice. He also detailed the whirlwind of events through which he was named Acting Solicitor General prior to Noel Francisco’s official appointment as SG. Additionally, Mr. Wall provided valuable advice to us as law students, about ways we can succeed as legal professionals.

When Justice Sonia Sotomayor entered the Lawyers’ Lounge, we could hardly contain our excitement. She, too, was all smiles as she addressed the class from the front of the room. She was incredibly personable and encouraged students to introduce themselves when they asked questions. Justice Sotomayor discussed her philosophy on the importance of engaging with the public and being among the citizens whose lives are impacted by the Court’s decisions. She also shared about her personal journey and the obstacles she overcame to ascend to her position on the Supreme Court. Meeting Justice Sotomayor was the perfect finale to an amazing trip to D.C., and one of the major highlights of our class.

When I registered to take the Supreme Court Seminar, I knew it would be a wonderful opportunity – but it has far surpassed my expectations. My understanding of the intricacies of the Court has increased exponentially, and I am grateful to have met some of the most influential players in our legal system. I can say with certainty that the Supreme Court Seminar will be one of the most memorable experiences of my time at William & Mary.

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