Supreme Court Seminar: A One-of-a-Kind Class Experience

zimmermanBy Liesel Zimmerman, Class of 2018

Law students spend a considerable amount of time reading cases and analyzing the interpretive strategies of the justices on our nation’s Highest Court. We become familiar with their individual writing styles and judicial perspectives. Although these influential figures become household names to students, few of us ever have the chance to see them in action. At William & Mary, facetime with Supreme Court Justices can be part of your curriculum!

Each year, Professor Neal Devins’ Supreme Court Seminar gives third-year students an inside look at the workings of the Supreme Court, including the chance to attend oral arguments and meet with a current justice. I am grateful to have secured a spot in the class this semester, and I am learning a great deal about the dynamics of the Court. Notably, the format of the course allows us to learn through open discussions with leading Supreme Court advocates, government officials, and Court of Appeals Judges.

For instance, early in the semester, we had the chance to meet former Solicitor General Donald Verrilli. He provided insight into his experiences arguing before the Supreme Court on behalf of the federal government. Even with his distinguished credentials, Mr. Verrilli proved to be very personable and genuine in his interactions with the class.

Professor Devins then introduced us to Marc Elias, who currently chairs the political law practice at Perkins Coie, and served as general counsel to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. He shared with us about the three voting rights cases he successfully argued before the Supreme Court. Further, he explained his techniques for preparing for oral argument, which were particularly valuable to the aspiring litigators in the room.

The following week, Judge Rosemary Pooler of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals spoke to the class. She discussed her decision-making in three cases that were eventually appealed to the Supreme Court. She also provided her view of what makes a good advocate, and emphasized the importance of a well-written brief in persuading judges. Stanley M. Brand joined us next, and expounded upon his role as the first general counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives. He explained how he advocated for all the Representatives, regardless of their political affiliations – a refreshing concept in today’s highly polarized political arena.

On Tuesday, October 24, our class visited the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. It was a surreal experience to be present at the Fourth Circuit, with its elegant wood-paneled walls, massive portraits of former judges, and perfect view of the Virginia State Capitol Building. The setting lent itself well to the rich and important history of the court. There, we had the privilege of meeting with Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson and Judge Pamela Harris. Both were extremely cordial and willing to answer our questions about their experiences handling appellate cases. We also heard from the former Solicitor General of Virginia, Stuart Raphael, who shared his involvement in major cases within Virginia and the Fourth Circuit. These included his decision not to defend Virginia’s previous ban on same-sex marriage, and his role in addressing President Trump’s travel ban.

The semester, thus far, has been both fascinating and enlightening, and I count myself fortunate to be enrolled in the Supreme Court Seminar. Stay tuned for my account of our class’s upcoming visit to the Supreme Court!