How I Spent My Day In Washington D.C. With John Sexton and Justice Elena Kagan

on 6 February, 2013

“Work hard and do your job well, and have a lot of luck,” Justice Elena Kagan said to a group of NYU students on Monday at the Supreme Court. While such advice might be hard to follow, you can’t argue with someone who’s worked her way up to where she is.

Justice Kagan was taking questions from NYU students from New York and Abu Dhabi to give us her insights on workings of this revered institution. She touched upon the traditions of the Court, her decision-making abilities and even her video game playing skills in a Q&A session.

I, along with a group of eleven other students, were able to travel to Washington D.C. for a day to meet Justice Kagan. All of us had taken John Sexton’s seminar on the Supreme Court and the Constitution’s religion clauses last semester. The trip is a yearly tradition for members of the class and is supposed to be a treat for all the hard work we’d done over the semester. And, also, because the class never ends.

We departed from Bobst shortly before 8am and the ride to D.C. was generally uneventful (thankfully there weren’t any Megabus style disasters to speak of). After a brief stop in Delaware, we arrived at Union Station in D.C. a little after noon for a lunch break. By 2 pm, we were dropped off near the Supreme Court grounds and were walking towards the building, shivering form the wind but giddy with excitement.

When I think of the Supreme Court, I think of a huge stone building with grand stone columns–and that’s what I saw, but not in the manner I expected:

Yes, that’s a picture of the Supreme Court building plastered over the building since some type of construction was taking place. Were it not for the scaffolding near the entrance way, you’d think that the building was actually a painted wall.

Inside, we had to go through a not-very-thorough security check, yet contrary to what we were told, our IDs were never checked, and one student was able to get a Swiss Army Knife through security. The lobby of the building was beautiful, with floors and walls made of marble, paintings that commemorated past justices, exhibits that described the history of the Court, and a huge statute of Chief Justice John Marshall – the first Supreme Court Chief Justice that ever was.

At a quarter to 2, we met Diane Yu, the executive Deputy President of NYU, who was also the Director of the Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Scholars Program at NYU Abu Dhabi. She was with a large contingent of NYU Abu Dhabi kids and together we settled into another room to await the arrival of the Justice.

Weeks before when planning the trip, we were originally scheduled to meet Justice Kennedy. But in the middle of the day just before we arrived, we had gotten word that Justice Kennedy was sick with a cold–but he was able to send Justice Kagan in his stead.

Once Justice Kagan, dressed in a sweater and pants (we weren’t allowed to take pictures of her) arrived, we all stood before she quickly motioned for us to sit down. Justice Kagan introduced herself as the Junior Justice of the Court, being the newest appointee, and briefly described her thoughts about the job before opening the floor to questions.

When asked what surprised her about the Court, Kagan responded that the fact that the Court and all its procedures have remained largely the same is what surprised her the most. You’d think that the Justices are at least able to use email to communicate to each other, but instead they use paper memos delivered by messengers–just like how it was done 25 years ago when Kagan clerked at the Supreme Court.

Related to the topic of technology, Kagan discussed how the Justices try to keep up with modern advancements in order to make informed decisions about technology, given that it can come up in a variety of cases, ranging from patent law to criminal law. Kagan cited an example from a case in 2011 about violent video games, and having never played games, had her law clerks bring them in for her to observe and interact with.

When asked whether she has ever regretted a Court ruling she has made, Kagan noted that, given the brief amount of time she has served on the Court–about two and a half years — not enough time has passed for her to regret a decision made many years ago. Kagan said she is good decision maker because her lack of angst and is able to move forward from the past. Yet she added that if she were to never have regretted a decision that she has made, it would mean that either she wasn’t thinking or that she had not changed or grown as person after many years. She noted that Justices do make mistakes and do have opinions that change over time, and does not want to be a Justice who has reached her full capacity at her tender age of 52.

After spending about an hour with us, Justice Kagan had to leave to do her more important job. We were then introduced to two of Justice Kennedy’s law clerks, Mark and Dave, who described their duties, which included whittling down the 10,000 petitions the Supreme Court receives every year into the 80 of 90 cases the Court actually hears in a given year. After spending some time with them, it was time for all of us to leave, but not before getting a peek at the courtroom that’s used by the Justices to hear cases:

Although we stayed for such a short period of time at the Court (really only 2 hours), I found Justice Kagan’s remarks to be fascinating and worth listening to even though I don’t intend on being a lawyer. She gave us insight on how Court worked and brought out the human side to an otherwise imposing and faceless institution. Though what I’ll probably remember most is the joke she told us: the highest court in the land is not the Supreme Court–it’s the basketball court on the top floor.

Photos by Sakib Ahmed