I had my FIRST oral argument today and it went well. I'm so excited I lived to tell about it. I'm so happee I'm so happee I'm so happee so happee so happee :)You'd think she was happy or something.
Can you tell I'm happy?
But I can sure understand why: An oral argument isn't just a speech where you present your side of the case and all the case law that supports your carefully reasoned position. That would be way too easy -- and no fun at all to watch.
Here's a picture of the courtroom in Springfield where the Illinois Supreme Court sits.
You can just see, at the bottom of the photo, the place where an advocate would stand and present oral argument.
Let's back up just a bit, to get a better look:
Now you can see how large the room is, how intimidating it is, how far away the lawyer stands from the bench... so that all the Justices can see and hear what the lawyer has to say when they challenge the lawyer with questions. Because the questions are what makes an oral argument fun.
I'd love to tell you that I have had the privilege of arguing cases in this room. But that would not be true.
The Illinois Supreme Court, like the U.S. Supreme Court, gets to largely choose what cases it will hear. In Illinois, at least 20 cases are turned away for every one that is docketed. I've been turned away lots of times.
I've only been in this room twice -- and only once on a case. The other time, the first time, was on an August vacation. The Supreme Court was not in session, although the Fourth Appellate District, which sits in the same building, did have arguments scheduled that day.
I brought the family to see the place. Parked right in front of the building. The commotion of our entry woke up the guard -- it was hot and quiet and his dozing was entirely understandable in the circumstances. And even though we woke him -- when I explained why I was there and asked if the courtroom was open, and he said it wasn't -- he readily agreed to open it up for me and the family.
Can you tell this was before 2001?
So we went up to the room and the guard unlocked the door and turned on the lights and Middle Son, who was probably about six, made a beeline for the Chief Justice's chair, jumped in and started swiveling. I was mortified, but the guard was amused and it all worked out....
Not at all like my first oral argument, when I was a law student, like Shelby is now.
There are nine justices on the United States Supreme Court and seven justices on the Illinois Supreme Court -- but there were only three "judges" hearing my maiden effort. That's because three is the number of justices who would sit in an argument before the Illinois Appellate Court or the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
I'd stressed over the arguments, committed huge chunks of cases to memory, rehearsed an entire argument -- even though I knew I was unlikely to get past "Good morning" before the questions began coming in. To heighten our anxiety, the school made arrangements with the Circuit Court of Cook County to use actual courtrooms. So we would-be advocates were looking up at a real bench -- with very real law professors ready to challenge our every assertion.
I don't remember the case. It probably had a civil rights angle, because one of my "judges" that day had made his reputation as one of the top attorneys for the NAACP.
You must remember that this took place in 1978. I believe that we'd been exposed to Lexis (an on-line legal research system) by this time. I also believe that cases from Lexis weren't printed out at this time, they were carved with a stylus into clay tablets which had to be fired in a kiln before they could be read. Today there is almost no lag time between disposition and dissemination of a case... but this was a different time.
Thus, when the professor asked me if I was aware of a case that had been handed down yesterday afternoon by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, I think I panicked. I certainly froze.
Fortunately, this took place on a Saturday morning. By Monday, when the court was returned to its usual occupants, they'd somehow gotten me removed from the spot where I'd stood rooted for who knows how long. I believe I stood there so long the cleaning people came by and dusted me off. I don't believe I left a stain in the carpet -- but I've never investigated.
Actually, the question the professor posed was an easy one: A beachball, set up on a virtual tee for me to hit. All I had to do was say "no." But I didn't know that then... and I didn't say anything at all.
Years later -- just a couple of years ago now -- I was arguing a case to the Appellate Court of Illinois and one of the justices asked me if I was aware of the Smith case. (I don't remember the actual name of the case.) Now gray-haired and seasoned, I knew the correct answer: "No, Your Honor," I said.
"Well," said the justice, "I believe that the Smith case strongly supports your position here and is probably controlling."
I still had no clue what he was talking about, but I knew what to say in reply: "Well, in that case, Your Honor, I agree with you entirely." Everybody laughed -- except my opposing counsel, who tried hard to stifle a sob -- and we moved right along.
So I did improve. And now Shelby has started out well. So tender congratulations to her.