Seeing Justice in Action – Oral Arguments Come To Chicago

Supreme Court oral argumentsFor the first time in 108 years, the Illinois Supreme Court is hearing an entire term of oral arguments outside of Springfield, specifically right here in Chicago. The Supreme Court building in Springfield is undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation expected to be finished in September 2014. Until then, Chicagoans get the unique experience of having the highest court in the state deliver justice in their backyard.

The court wants to make the experience open to everyone. Any member of the public is invited to attend oral arguments. The calendar is posted on the court’s website three weeks prior to the start of oral arguments. All are welcome to attend and listen to some of the most skilled attorneys in the state argue in front of some of the most intelligent justices in the country.

For the 2013-2014 term, the court has specially invited students from all nine Illinois law schools, as well as various community schools, to attend oral arguments. I accompanied the first group in mid-November, paralegal students from Kankakee Community College and high school students from southeast Indiana.

Having never attended appellate arguments before, I was interested in seeing how the arguments progressed, particularly in this new venue. The court’s docket had three appeals that day. The first concerned a convicted statutory rape offender seeking application of the revestment doctrine. The second, an inmate convicted of first-degree murder trying to overcome procedural hurdles to his pro se appeal. The last, and of most interesting to the students, competing views on the Illinois search-and-seizure doctrine.

“Oyez! Oyez!” the bailiff announced as the justices entered the room. They each sat at the head table behind their assigned name cards. They looked briefly at the crowd. Then, new Supreme Court Chief Justice Rita B. Garman acknowledged the audience. She gave a separate acknowledgement to the 25 students gathered in the courtroom, telling them she hoped they would enjoy the experience. They certainly did, as did I.

It was truly remarkable watching the justices and the attorneys handle oral arguments. The justices would often cut right through an attorney’s argument to get directly to the points they wanted to hear. There were gentle nudges, stern reminders, quick admonishments, but at no time did it ever feel as if the justices were doing anything more than moving justice forward.

In questioning each attorney, the justices were not testing the attorney’s memorization techniques, nor were they demanding the attorney recite the brief’s footnotes perfectly. None of that mattered. What mattered was the law. All the justices wanted to know was, at the end of the day, how can justice best be served under the law.

I was also impressed by every attorney I saw. Yes, some of the students’ eyes glazed over when the arguments focused on Article 1, Section II, Paragraph D, Subsection 3, third word from the left. But not the attorneys. The attorneys could have been arguing Roe v. Wade given the amount of passion they conveyed. Some clearly had an enormous amount of appellate advocacy experience; others significantly less.

My personal favorite was an attorney who gave an impassioned defense of the lower court holding, without looking at his notes, and who talked to the justices as both equals and superiors, a very fine line that he quite impressively walked.

At the end of the day, I may have learned more from the experience than the students did. Oral advocacy, according to several commentators, should be on the way out. But my experience at the Supreme Court that day made me realize how essential the art of oral advocacy is. It is true that some of oral advocacy could be done via e-mail or Skype. Maybe all the justices could have a Google hangout together. But oral argument allows the justices to think aloud about the case with the case’s own advocates, the legal representatives of the clients. And as the justices challenged the advocates, the advocates challenged right back.

I encourage you to stop by the Bilandic Building. The court is generally in session the second and third Tuesdays and Wednesdays in January, March and May. Go watch justice in action. You will leave a better advocate and a better attorney. I know I did.

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