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Supreme Court Justice Alito delivers Opperman Lecture

Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito visited Drake University to deliver the 12th Dwight D. Opperman Lecture on Constitutional Law. Approximately 1,500 people filled the Knapp Center on Thursday afternoon due to the significance of Alito’s visit.

The event began with a welcome from Allan Vestal, the dean of Drake Law School, who mentioned what a gift the Opperman Lecture is to the Law School and how the event is a great way to continue to celebrate the Constitution.

Following Vestal, Drake University President David Maxwell thanked and acknowledged Dwight D. Opperman, who accompanied Vestal, Maxwell and Alito on stage, for his contributions to the Drake Law School. After a brief introduction presented by Vestal, Alito approached the podium and began his lecture.

Prior to the lecture, Alito took part in a question and answer session with law students, took a tour of Opperman Hall, had lunch with faculty and met with Iowa federal judges.

Alito’s main topic of discussion was the evolution of the way arguments are presented to the Supreme Court. He started off by noting how oral arguments and briefing are two components of the Supreme Court, and continued with the historical background of the two.

The first Supreme Court trial, held in Philadelphia, followed British rulings and practices, primarily the tradition of only oral arguments in the trial. In the early 1800s, under Supreme Justice John Marshall, the court moved to Washington D.C. and written briefs were introduced shortly after. Over time, legal briefs became more prevalent and the importance of oral arguments decreased.

“Oral communication is slow and complicated ideas are easier to understand by writing rather than speaking,” Alito said.

Alito then went on to list reasons why he believes oral arguments are unnecessary, what aspects of oral arguments serve some purpose and what aspects are good, and how oral arguments benefit the court.

He noted that oral arguments waste time by restating arguments listed in the brief, but they help probe for weak points in an argument. He also stated that oral arguments have the ability to give the Supreme Court a face.

“It shows engagement in our work and that we’ve studied cases and are deeply involved in what is being decided,” he said.

To close his lecture, Alito addressed the question of whether Supreme Court trials should be publicly televised. Alito said that televised trials would change the way people act during a trial, may give viewers a misleading impression of the court system and the work that it does, and overall would not contribute much to the case at hand.

Alito’s lecture not only gave the audience the unique opportunity to listen to a Supreme Court justice speak, but it also gave those who attended a better understanding of the history and significance of oral and written arguments in the court system.

“We, as law students, learn and study how history, precedent, and case law are important in decision making, and it carries over to the Supreme Court,” sophomore Drake law student Theresa Voge said.

Photo: Carter Oswood

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