U.S. Supreme Court Justice Scalia Addresses Aspiring Lawyers

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and lexicographer Bryan A. Garner spoke to USF law students about ethics and the art of pursuading a judge. (Photo courtesy of Shawn Calhoun)

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and lexicographer Bryan A. Garner spoke to USF law students about ethics and the art of pursuading a judge. (Photo courtesy of Shawn Calhoun)

Security was high last Friday, Jan. 31, when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and lexicographer Bryan A. Garner presented the keynote address for the 2014 USF Law Review Symposium, “Legal Ethics in the 21st Century: Technology, Speech, and Money.”

Scalia and Garner discussed their latest book, “Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts,” and gave advice on “the art of persuading judges” to USF law students in the audience.

Despite the high security upon entering the event and the formal attire of the attending law community, the symposium took a casual tone as Scalia and Garner relayed their advice in a conversational manner. Justice Scalia, advising law practitioners in the art of the oral argument, suggested, “master[ing] the use of the pause.” Garner followed jokingly with, “Yes, but the problem with the pause is the judge might actually ask a question during that time.”

A major theme of the symposium was the ethical conduction of law.

In his introduction, Dean of the School of Law John Trasviña said that USF’s focus on Jesuit education helps create “ethically legal professionals,” a virtue also emphasized by Scalia and Garner. “It’s the ethical responsibility as a lawyer to be the best lawyer you can be,” Garner said.

Scalia, the longest-serving Supreme Court justice, is no stranger to Jesuit education — he graduated from the Jesuit Georgetown University in 1957, according to Georgetown Law. Justice Scalia said he tries to be “as perfect as his heavenly Father” in his work as a Supreme Court Justice. “Jesus Christ was not a sloppy carpenter,” he joked, in reference to his meticulous approach to serving a now 26-year term.

When asked why USF was chosen as the symposium location, Trasviña said, “The bar association in San Francisco reached out to us — we have a strong partnership with them. And I think Justice Scalia, coming from Georgetown, feels a particular kinship to USF.”

Along with discussion of ethical law, Justice Scalia offered practical advice. He asked, “Why do lawyers write so badly?” After allowing a moment for his audience to mull the question over, he answered, “they read nothing but judicial opinions. You’ve got to read the ‘good stuff.’ You’ll hear a lawyer speaking and he’ll say something like, ‘the aforesaid…’ We have a perfectly good word for replacing [the aforesaid], and it’s ‘THAT,’” said Scalia, referring to the unnecessary use of complicated language by lawyers attempting to write eloquently. “Clarity is paramount,” Garner added.

The symposium was conducted for the benefit of students and professionals in the law community; however, the values that Justice Scalia and Bryan Garner discussed can be seen as beneficial lessons from any point of view.  “I could have used pretty much all of those points for my classes — public relations or public speaking,” USF communications studies professor Brian Vannice said.

According to USF law student Miles Maurino, Justice Scalia has “been in the majority opinions for some of the most catastrophic judicial decisions our country has seen.” Noting that Scalia has consistently advocated for conservative opinions over the years — opinions that have fundamentally changed our country—Maurino added, “while he demands respect as such a high ranking government official, some of his opinions have had very bad, far reaching effects on our country.”

Senior communication studies major Erin McCroskey attended the symposium for her “Public Relations: Law and Ethics” class. “I called my mom earlier and told her I was going to see Justice Scalia speak today. She said, ‘Oh my God, you never get that kind of opportunity — I hope you take notes!’” McCroskey said.

Another point of advice Justice Scalia gave law students is to “assume a posture of intellectual equality.” He noted that a judge has only spent a fraction of the time looking at a case compared to the lawyer who knows the information inside and out after working on the case for months. Therefore it is important to present the case as someone on equal intellectual grounds as the judge. Justice Scalia shook his head and concluded, “Sucking up doesn’t work.”

Make your point and make it well — and then move on. Scalia told students, “Don’t beat a dead horse. Don’t let a dead horse beat you.” If something is presented adequately, he said, it will not be necessary to reiterate the information — and doing so can make your case seem weak.

Justice Scalia also urged the law community to “treasure simplicity.” The most persuasive arguments are often the simplest ones, and using tactics to dress up a case can make it seem less credible. “Banish figurative language,” Garner added.

USF Law student David Angelo attended the symposium as well.    When asked what brought them to the event, Angelo said, “He’s an important figure, you gotta hear what he has to say whether you agree or not.”

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