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Hanna: Visiting The Supreme Court

10/19/09 7:55AM By Cheryl Hanna
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(HOST) Commentator and Vermont Law school professor Cheryl Hanna was at the United States Supreme Court recently to hear arguments and she can't believe how much the Court has changed.

(HANNA) I've visited the Court often over the last fifteen years, but on this visit, for the first time, it really seemed like the "people's court" to me.

Of course, I couldn't wait to see Justice Sotomayor.  She had on a gold bracelet that reminded me of the cuff that Wonder Woman wears. 

She must have wondered who the strange attorney in the front row was, because I just kept smiling, not just at her, but at the profound changes in that Courtroom.

What I first noticed was how relatively young the bench  was compared to just a few years ago, when Rehnquist was still Chief Justice. With Roberts, Alito, and now Sotomayor, there's been a generation shift.

Usually Justice Scalia is the first to ask a question, but Sotomayor beat him to the punch, quickly framing the issue and setting the tone for the rest of the morning. 

I was also struck at the engagement of  the Bush appointees. Both are quite good getting to the heart of the matter.
On the morning that I was there, all four attorneys that appeared before the Court were under 50.  Neal Kaytal, the deputy Solicitor General and one of the best Supreme Court advocates in history, is of Indian descent.  The other three attorneys were women from varying  backgrounds.

Elena Kagan, the first woman Solicitor General, was there too, watching arguments in preparation for a major case she would argue the next day.

It was just so cool to see such a cross-section of people wielding all that legal power! It actually made me proud to be a member of the bar - and when was the last time you heard a lawyer admit that?

Of course, the Court still has its political divisions, and will likely split on important decisions. But I have a sense that this term will mark a new area for the Court, which may no longer be so removed from the public that it is charged with protecting. 

It's a younger, hipper, and more engaging place, relatively speaking, of course, than in years past.

So the next time you are in D.C., I strongly urge you to get to the Court and to stay for an entire argument. The Court maintains an easy-to-use website that lists the days it hears arguments. 

You can often request advance tickets from your senator or representative, or from the Court itself.  If all else fails, stand in line and admire the beautiful Vermont marble that adorns the Court's exterior while you wait to get in.

And don't be intimated.  Most people leave the Court saying that they understood more than they thought they would. Constitutional law really is much more accessible than we lawyers often let on. If you can't get to DC, you can hear most arguments on-line. 

Trust me, a Supreme Court argument is the best free theater our nation has to offer and, in my opinion, it's only getting better!



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