Last night, thanks to the kind invitation of our excellent, hardworking and all around nice Senator Collins, I was her guest at the biannual Senate-Supreme Court Historical Society dinner at the Great Hall of the Supreme Court. The newly minted Senator from Illinois, Roland Burris, sat on my other side. Since I grew up near Chicago, we swapped Wildcat stories (his son went to Northwestern Law School and his daughter got a Ph.d there.)
The Senate attends, along with the Justices (I counted six, including Justice Ginsburg, looking teeny but strong, like a female Yoda). The speeches - from the President of the Society (Pierce Atwood's Ralph Lancaster), the minority leader, Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, Harry Reid, Justice Kennedy and Chief Justice Roberts – were all concise and on point. CJ Roberts was a little late, because he had been attending his son's Pinewood Derby contest (his son did well, but didn't win – Roberts said it's pretty tough to prevail when another scout's parents are NASA engineers. There are times when knowing the laws of physics are more useful than the kind of laws the Supreme Court usually deals with.)
Justice Kennedy's speech noted that the law schools in our founding fathers' days concentrated not on arguments from courts, but Parliamentary speeches, which were admired for their sound rhetoric techniques. It's true that it can never hurt to go back to the fundamentals – Virgil said there were seven plots in literature and that still holds true today, and if you want to learn how to argue well, go back to the ancient Greeks. (Thinking about what makes a good arguer was also prompted this week by the fact that The Great Debaters has been showing this month on one of those premium cable channels that I am compelled to subscribe to because it comes in the package with the obscure sports channel my husband must get because it shows the Tour de France, sigh.)
Another point that was made at the dinner was the importance of cordiality in public discourse. Certainly everyone there seemed to be getting along, and let's hope that spirit pervades our courts and legislative bodies as we face these tough times. Being able to listen and treat everyone with respect is a mark of not only a good appellate lawyer but our best lawmakers, like Senator Collins.
It was a very fun night. Even the food was top notch.