Yesterday afternoon, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor spoke before a packed Bailey Hall on the importance of oral argument in the Supreme Court.
O’Connor, the first female justice, told the audience that she chose to speak about oral arguments to correct the false assumption that the Supreme Court Justices make their decisions “without outside assistance.”
She stressed the importance of lawyers’ oral arguments, which “identify and spell out the legal issues [of cases] . . . and shape a consistent, coherent body of law.”
Oral arguments, which are presented by lawyers in addition to written briefs, encourage the justices to ask questions and better comprehend their cases. The ability to ask questions ensures, as O’Connor joked, that the Supreme Court stays awake during hearings.
On a more serious note, O’Connor said that the questioning provides, “a chance for the justices to hear each other’s concerns and views.”
O’Connor also described how the role of oral argument has changed throughout the Supreme Court’s existence. Whereas 19th century lawyers such as Daniel Webster once argued cases for days on end, a practice that provided public entertainment, there are currently time limits regarding how long lawyers can speak.
One major cause of the shift to shorter oral arguments came about after the Brown vs. Board of Education case, in which lawyer Marshall’s succinct style of oral argument trumped Davis’ longer speeches.
Although she called the modern court system “far more restrained,” O’Connor acknowledged that the time limits encourage lawyers to make every word count by presenting their arguments better.
O’Connor also revealed that she considers current Chief Justice John Roberts to be the best modern oral arguer she has heard.
After her speech, O’Connor answered questions from audience members.
One question, which drew applause from the audience, asked O’Connor about her role in the Bush vs. Gore court case over the 2000 presidential election.
O’Connor said that the Court voted to stop the recount since the media had already done three recounts in Florida.
She acknowledged that the American electoral voting system is “very odd” in that it “doesn’t allow people to vote for candidates,” and said that although she sympathized with some people’s frustrations, the Court had a responsibility to uphold the Constitution.
O’Connor was at Cornell from Sunday to Tuesday as a “Distinguished Jurist in Residence.” This position, according to Stewart Schwab, Allan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law, is given to important lawyers once a year who come to campus “to interact with students and faculty in a variety of settings.”
As part of her visit, O’Connor taught a class at Ithaca High School, served as a moot court judge in the Law School, and held a conference with Provost Biddy Martin about “Women in Leadership.”
Martin said that O’Connor’s visit to Cornell was “a wonderful opportunity because of her experience and achievements.”
Chairman of the Cornell College Republicans, Ahmed Salem ’08, commended O’Connor’s visit for “[adding] to the much needed intellectual diversity by presenting a different, moderate to conservative viewpoint” on campus.
O’Connor’s talk yesterday afternoon was part of the Milton Konvitz Memorial Lecture series which honors the late co-founder of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations and law professor. It was co-sponsored by both schools.
Colman Stiteler ’09 said he was surprised that O’Connor talked about oral argument rather than the importance of an independent judiciary, the topic previously announced. Nonetheless, he said, “I learned a lot about the Supreme Court and its history.”
Vice President of the ILR student body Polina Schwartzman ’09, said of O’Connor, “It was interesting to hear from someone who has actually realized the dreams of many female law students here.”
When asked at a media roundtable on Monday what advice she has to offer to female students entering a discriminatory workplace, O’Connor acknowledged that upon graduation from law school she could not even get an interview.
However, she said that she kept looking, and advised women to search until they “find something worth doing” rather than sitting around and “wringing their hands.”
She added, “If we’re not yet in a perfect world, we must keep working to improve it.”