Wednesday March 8, 2017

Dayton Law Alumni Sworn in to Bar of the Supreme Court

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan met with 26 Dayton Law alumni and family members Monday morning, March 6, before they were sworn in to the Bar of the United States Supreme Court.

Dean Andrew Strauss introduced Justice Kagan -- his friend and classmate since their undergraduate years at Princeton University -- at a breakfast in the Chief Justices Room before the swearing-in. “This is a very meaningful day for our alumni who are being sworn into the Supreme Court Bar, and it is truly an honor to have Justice Kagan here to share it with us,” he said.

Elena KaganJustice Kagan’s presence made a momentous occasion even more special for the assembled lawyers and their guests. She told the group she doesn’t attend such gatherings often, but she made an exception because of her friendship with Strauss.

During her warm, informal conversation with alumni, Justice Kagan described her love for the job. "I try to remember that every day in this job is a privilege," she said. "I never want to forget the privilege and the responsibility that comes with the job."

Dianne Weiskittle ’13 called it a “pinch myself” moment: "I feel so fortunate that Dean Strauss had that connection, so we could have this experience." 

Many alumni were impressed by Justice Kagan’s friendly, natural manner as she spoke candidly about her day-to-day life as the junior Supreme Court Justice.

Weiskittle confessed to feeling nervous about meeting Kagan.  “Then she just walked in like any of us, dressed in business casual, with no security,” said Weiskittle, insurance counsel for Premier Health Partners. “Justice Kagan did a great job of making us feel comfortable and at ease. When she spoke of her first day as a justice, she talked about feeling anxious given that it was her first day on the job. It struck me how relatable she was.”

Strauss may have been the only one who wasn’t surprised by Kagan’s unassuming demeanor. At Princeton, she was known for “her genuineness, kindness and easy laugh,” he said.

“I would say that her refreshing, down-to-earth ways and unpretentious openness belied her future as a Supreme Court Justice, except that, as anyone who has observed her can see, she has maintained that essential spirit of her youth,” Strauss said.  “It comes through in her public appearances, one-on-one encounters, and even in the uncommonly accessible, even sometimes colloquial, way that she writes her opinions.” 

Despite the contentious nature of many cases before the Supreme Court, Justice Kagan said the eight justices are truly collegial. “The truth is we all get along together very well,” she said.

She also described the three places where persuasion around cases occurs – and it’s not just in conference and oral arguments. As the junior justice, Kagan always speaks last in conference. “No one can speak twice before everyone has gone,” she said. “It’s a good rule if you’re the junior justice.”

But then, just as in any office, some of the justices walk the halls, seeking out the opinions of their colleagues.

“There are some hall walkers among the justices,” Justice Kagan said. “Some are schmoozers; some are not. And we do often persuade each other.”

She praised the lawyers who argue cases before the Supreme Court. “They are not the kind of lawyers you suffer through,” she said.

Justice Kagan said she is most impressed with the lawyers who don’t make grand speeches and who aren’t intimidated by the justices: “The thing that makes the great ones is the ability to engage in a conversation with the justices.”

Judge Stephen W. Powell of the Ohio 12th District Court of Appeals said he felt even greater pride in the American judicial system after listening to Justice Kagan. “I was pleased to hear they are very warm and cordial and friendly with one another, and that they enjoy the conversations and interplay and they respect one another personally,” said Powell ’81. “It gives you a new appreciation and respect for the people doing the job. They seem more human now, like you and me. They’re wonderful people, highly intelligent and educated.”

Powell was equally impressed by the majesty of the Supreme Court chambers when the group was ushered in. All cell phones and electronics – even Fitbits – were confiscated.

Sutton Smith ‘13, staff attorney for the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, found the Supreme Court chambers smaller than expected: “We couldn’t have been 10 feet from the justices. The room is designed to inspire awe, with columns and carvings and heavy curtains.”

Two decisions were read from the bench before the swearing-in, one by Justice Clarence Thomas and the other by Justice Anthony Kennedy. The latter made news with the 5-3 ruling that courts must make an exception to the rule of secret jury deliberations if evidence emerges that those discussions contained racial bias.

Smith said he couldn’t pass up this unique opportunity, even though he has a 2-year-old and a newborn. He and his wife Emi traveled to DC for the ceremony.

 “It was my first visit to the Supreme Court and a cool introduction,” he said. “I thought, ‘I may never get another shot at this. Why not jump in when I can?'”

The swearing-in ceremony capped a weekend of festivities, including a welcome reception March 4 followed by a Dayton Flyers game against the George Washington Colonials. The next UDSL Supreme Court swearing-in is scheduled for 2019.

“Most who are admitted never argue a case before the Supreme Court,” said Middletown personal injury attorney Barb Strady ‘90. “But it still feels great to have been a part of that history.”

Weiskittle, too, said the event exceeded her expectations. “I remain in awe of the contributions of the justices,” she said. “But Justice Kagan reminded me that while the justices are legal scholars, they are also people managing first days of work and relationships with colleagues just like everyone else.”

She said she always will be grateful to the Law School for fulfilling a longtime dream: “I never thought I would have an opportunity to stand before the Justices of the Supreme Court and hear the greatest legal minds of our nation.”

-- Mary McCarty

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