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SCOTUS rookie takes on veteran

Usually the attorneys that argue before the Supreme Court are seasoned law firm partners, law professors, and longtime appellate advocates. But yesterday, a law firm associate got his chance to argue before the Court in a critical case that could determine clarify just what conduct by criminal prosecutors is shielded from civil liability.

Yesterday, Mayer Brown associate Steve Sanders made his Supreme Court debut, arguing the case Pottawattamie County v. McGhee on the petitioners’ behalf. And in his first appearance, he went against a veteran: former Solicitor General Paul Clement, who has argued more than 50 cases before the High Court.

After the argument, Sanders took time to chat with DC Dicta.

DC Dicta: So, were you nervous? You didn’t look like you were.

Sanders: I think the word I would use is serene. I felt well prepared. I got a decent night’s sleep. It was sort of like being in law school, and you know you did everything you possibly can to study for the exam. You know it at that point, and you are ready to go.

DC Dicta: You faced some heavy questioning from Justices Anthony Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg right off the bat.

Sanders: I think Justice Kennedy asks provocative questions at oral arguments. He asked Mr. Clement some sharp questions as well. I went to the Court to observe oral arguments [Tuesday] and watch Justice Ginsburg’s style. I didn’t interpret her questions as hostile, or as coming from a sense that she’d made up her mind.

DC Dicta: I think even the seasoned Supreme Court lawyer finds the prospect of arguing before Justice Antonin Scalia daunting. What was that like?

Sanders: Going from our position in the case and the law we relied upon, we had good reason to believe that Justice Scalia might agree with our position. I didn’t expect Justice Scalia to be a all hostile to our position. [In fact,] I think Justice Scalia tried to toss me a softball during the rebuttal. I just missed it.

Overall, I think that the hostility you face during moot court sessions – when you argue before law professors and other people trying very, very hard to be skeptical of your argument – it tends to be far scarier. The justices of the Supreme Court are more polite and have more good will.

One comment

  1. Having argued my first case before the Court last year, I would agree with virtually everything Sanders said about the experience.

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