Alito: Prep more important than oral arguments
Monday, May 16, 2011
ST. LOUIS (AP) — Oral arguments usually get most of the attention when cases make it to the U.S. Supreme Court, but Justice Samuel Alito said those arguments are a relatively small part of deciding each case.
Alito, 61, spoke Monday at a Law Day gathering hosted by the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis. About 500 lawyers attended the event, part of the association’s Equal Access to Justice Centennial Celebration, honoring the formation of the Legal Aid Society in St. Louis in 1911. That organization is now known as Legal Services of Eastern Missouri and provides help to the needy.
Alito delivered what he called a “top 10 list” of things people don’t know about the Supreme Court. Among them is the importance of preparation and briefs compared to oral arguments.
“Oral argument is a relatively small and, truth be told, a relatively unimportant part of what we do,” Alito said.
The justices often read 500 pages or more of briefs before hearing a case — 2,000 words in one recent case, Alito said. Oral arguments typically last just an hour.
With all of that preparation, “when we do take the bench, we are really primed for the argument,” Alito said. As evidence, he noted that last year, 40 percent of the words spoken in arguments before the Supreme Court were uttered by the justices, who averaged 120 questions per case — roughly two each minute.
The peppering of questions from justices rather famously doesn’t include any from one of them, Clarence Thomas, who has not spoken during an argument infive years. Alito defended his colleague.
“Justice Thomas’ practice is, as far as I can tell, exactly the same as John Marshall, regarded by many as the greatest justice ever,” Alito said. Marshall was chief justice from 1801 to 1835, though Alito noted that the court’s decisions in those days were based almost entirely on oral arguments and justices typically did not speak, allowing attorneys the allotted time to make their cases.
Despite what some believe, the justices get along well, making it a habit to lunch together with one rule, Alito said: Talk about sports, music, family — anything but cases.