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Justice Kagan Highlights South Hall Dedication Weekend

By Katie Vloet
September 8, 2012

Associate Justice Elena Kagan gave an inside look at the Supreme Court during a Friday morning talk presented by the U-M Law School, in which she said justices are not motivated to rule in certain cases to favor or disfavor a particular president, that even the politically divergent members of the Court genuinely like and respect one another, and that she—the junior justice—has tasks such as serving on the Court's cafeteria committee.

"There is not a single member of this Court, at a single time, who has made a decision, who has cast a vote, based on do I like this president, do I not like this president … will this help the Democrats, will this help the Republicans?" she said. "It is just not the way any member of the Court thinks."

Still, she said, "There are certain substantive matters that we divide on because we approach Constitutional decision-making in a different sort of way, because we bring different methodologies to the table, because we have different views about governing precedents and how broad or narrow those precedents are." The Court, she added, would be better off "if we had fewer of these 5-4 cases. … I would like to have a Court where there's more unpredictability of decision-making."

Justice Kagan made the remarks during a Q&A with Law School Dean Evan Caminker, who served as a Supreme Court clerk around the same time as Kagan and who became dean the same year that Kagan was appointed dean of Harvard Law School. Kagan was invited to MIchigan Law to celebrate the dedication of the new South Hall academic building and addressed the crowd at the dedication ceremony Friday afternoon.

During the morning Q&A, she talked about how collegial the Court is—even more so now, she said, than when she clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall in 1987.

"This is the most intimate, warmest institution I've ever participated in," she said. "We all have enormous respect for each other," she said, adding that Justice Antonin Scalia considers Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg his best friend on the Court, in spite of their differences of opinion on many cases.

In other portions of the Q&A, Kagan:

  • Said she used to support allowing cameras into Supreme Court oral arguments, but now wonders whether that would make the institution work "less well," in part because of her concern that a clip would end up, out of context, on the evening news
  • Said that questioning by the justices during oral arguments has grown more detailed and intense in recent years, starting with Scalia, whose view was: "We've all read the brief.… Let's try to make this hour of our day useful"
  • Disputed a belief that clerks have too much power and influence on the Court's decisions. "The notion that these 28-year-olds are deciding cases? They're not." Clerks are very helpful, though, at deciding which cases the Court should take
  • Pointed out that she, as the junior justice, has to open the door when justices are in conference and a staff member for a fellow justice drops off, say, a cup of coffee or the justice's glasses; take notes; and serve on the Supreme Court cafeteria committee (where she made the popular decision of having a frozen yogurt machine brought in).

Later in the day, at the dedication of South Hall, the focus was on the building's importance to a Michigan Law legal education—and on the institution's gratitude for the extraordinarily generous donors who made the building possible.

Speakers at the event—officiated by Bruce Bickner, '68, chair of the building fundraising committee—included Justice Kagan, U-M President Mary Sue Coleman, U-M Board of Regents Chairman Laurence B. Deitch, '72, and Dean Caminker.

Caminker spoke of the Law Quad's "magnificent architecture" that has "supported our educational mission" for many decades. "Our wonderful new additions will be equally inspirational," he said. "But they will also do so much more, as pedagogy has changed significantly over the past eight decades."

He added: "We don't build very often around here, just every Great Depression or so. But when we do, we do it well."

Construction of the building, which houses state-of-the-art classroom and clinic spaces as well as faculty and staff offices, began in 2009 and was completed last fall.

Each classroom is equipped with flexible, easy-to-use technology to make it easier for professors to bring their points to life. All five full-size classrooms include intuitive, touch-panel control systems, document cameras, a larger touch screen that allows professors to annotate documents projected on video screens, and much more. Two of the rooms are fully equipped for videoconferencing and distance learning.

Other areas of the building call for more specialized equipment—and equipment carefully designed to protect the sensitive information lawyers customarily handle. The clinical suites boast five interview rooms with digital equipment that can produce video or audio recordings at the push of a button. Interviews also can be viewed over a secure Internet connection, allowing professors to monitor the discussions.

The new building received LEED Gold-level certification for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design from the U.S. Green Building Council.

It had been almost 80 years since Michigan Law last dedicated a new academic building. An associate justice of the Supreme Court also spoke at that ceremony, held in June 1934.

"For the first time it has been given to an American university to establish a unit completely organized and equipped for the training of lawyers, for research in legal science, and for the intimate association at a common meeting place of students and teachers of law with the members of the Bench and Bar," Justice Harlan F. Stone said at the 1934 event.

"By that magic," he continued, "which only the modern world has known, in a brief interval of time all the physical equipment which skill and ingenuity could devise to aid those engaged in the common enterprise of advancing the science of the law has been here assembled, clothed in architectural forms of enduring beauty, and richly endowed to insure its service in perpetuity."

On Friday, a new piece of enduring beauty, also "richly endowed to insure its service in perpetuity," officially became part of the storied Law Quad.

John Masson and Lori Atherton contributed to this story.

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