BY CLINTON DICK
A professor once said that oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court are more than a questioning session between the justices and the arguer. Instead, these arguments are a way for the justices to have a conversation between themselves. This style of communication was partly on display when Harvard Law School hosted the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit on Tuesday in Ames Courtroom, an event sponsored by the J.D. Dean’s Office. The three judges were not only sifting through the lawyers’ arguments in order to get at the relevant issue, but also communicating with each other about these questions and raising concerns that would undoubtedly resurface during their private deliberations.
Students not only had a chance to learn about cases before they became chapter headings in future casebooks, but they also could see first-hand the thinking process of a court. Students undoubtedly left the proceedings with an understanding as to why classrooms adopt the Socratic method, as it closely resembles that used in appellate hearings. Judges Pauline Newman, Alan Lourie and Timothy Dyk were not passive listeners who expected to have the cases laid out for them. Instead, the judges engaged the speakers with directed comments as to why arguments were wrong and others might be better. One comment could tear down a line of reasoning that took months to formulate, while one question could send a speaker scrambling through her notes in search of a persuasive answer.
The judges heard from seven different lawyers on four distinct cases, ranging from subcontractor issues in Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense v. United Technologies Corporation, to a patent dispute in Oakley, Inc. v. Sunglass Hut International. In Park B. Smith, Ltd. v. United States, the court had to apply custom rules to determine if certain items, such as napkins, should be classified as festive if they contained, for example, a picture of Santa Claus. A particularly humorous conversation took place in this case between Dyk and one of the lawyers over whether fall should be considered a holiday.
In fact, it seemed that the judges were quite comfortable in their new setting and had no problem using humor to the benefit of the crowd and the detriment of counsel. For example, during arguments in Rumsfeld, Dyk asked a question of United Technologies Corporation’s counsel using a sheep analogy. The lawyer responded, at which time Lourie, to the pleasure of the students, told the counsel that he had given a “sheepish” answer.
Also on the docket was an appeal from the Office of Personnel Management’s denial of a woman’s application for disability retirement. In Kegarise v. Office of Personnel Management, Kegarise claims she suffers from “multiple chemical syndrome” that has been aggravated by her work environment at the Kewanna Post Office. She appealed after the Merit Systems Protection Board affirmed OPM’s decision. During oral arguments, Newman seemed sympathetic to Kegarise’s claim that accommodations should be made for her at the post office, but conceded that the court could only review OPM’s decision regarding a disability claim, not accommodation issues. In the end, the lawyer for Kegarise asked the court to remand.