Harvard At 200: Justices Look Back On Their Law School Days — And Beyond

Oct 31, 2017
Originally published on October 31, 2017 8:00 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

There have been 113 Supreme Court justices in this nation's history, and 1 out of every 6 attended Harvard Law School. At that school's bicentennial last week, six of those alums were on stage to casually reminisce about school days and each other. Front and center, Chief Justice John Roberts joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch, retired Justice David Souter and, of course, NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg was there as well.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Which future justice was caught at a Red Sox game the day before his tax final? Which was wounded at a mock duel? And which one decided not to shave all summer after his first term on the court? Such was the food for amusement as the justices talked about old law school days and more current times, too. Reminiscing about law school, Justice Kennedy recalled a course he took that was so difficult it was known as darkness at noon. Asking the questions, Dean John Manning wondered which justice they most admired and which they would most like to have dinner with if forced to choose from those they had not served with.

On the admiration scale, the most votes went to Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louis Brandeis and Chief Justice John Marshall, who served from 1801 to 1834. As Chief Justice Roberts put it...

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JOHN ROBERTS: He is certainly the most significant political figure in our history who was not president. His decisions really did shape what the Constitution was going to mean in practice.

TOTENBERG: Roberts had a different take, picking Chief Justice William Howard Taft.

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ROBERTS: He's extraordinarily underrated because he is fat and you think he can't really be a brilliant public servant. And you know you'd get a lot of food and it would be good.

(LAUGHTER)

TOTENBERG: Perhaps the most entertaining portion of the evening was what Dean Manning called the lightning round of questions. Who was an Eagle Scout by the age of 12? Justice Breyer raised his hand, prompting an astonished Kagan to explain, I've never heard of anyone who was an Eagle Scout at 12. How did he do it? Replied Breyer, I began at 8. Who engaged in a mock sword duel while at Harvard Law School and ended up with a real slashed hand? The dashing David Souter raised his hand, prompting Justice Breyer to interject, these things happen to him.

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STEPHEN BREYER: While he was an active member of our court, he's walking in the woods somewhere, a rabbit jumped on his back and bit him in the neck.

TOTENBERG: Which justice celebrated the end of his first term on the court by refusing to shave all summer? Justice Gorsuch, whose wife vetoed the idea of keeping the beard for his return to court this fall. Who was caught at a Red Sox game the day before his final exam in taxes? Kennedy fessed up that in 1960, he was about to go back to California and it was his last chance to see Ted Williams play. So he and his study mate arrived at the game with the revenue code and the course casebook in hand.

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ANTHONY KENNEDY: We sat down and I heard this voice saying, you don't bring the revenue code to the baseball game.

(LAUGHTER)

TOTENBERG: It was the dean of the law school Erwin Griswold.

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KENNEDY: He was shocked. I don't know if he thought it was a profanation of the code or of the game.

TOTENBERG: And finally, which justice was voted by law school classmates as the person most likely to be appointed to the Supreme Court? Elena Kagan.

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ELENA KAGAN: It was definitely better than being voted the first person to be indicted.

(LAUGHTER)

TOTENBERG: For those six Supreme Court justices, it was a rollicking good night out, and the legal audience loved it all. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.