Cindy Conlon’s Students Hear Oral Argument at Supreme Court

Cindy Conlon’s Students Hear Oral Argument at Supreme Court

Supreme Court Trip

Nine students in Cindy Conlon’s Supreme Court Seminar had the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., to hear oral argument at the Supreme Court. Their unique trip also included special tours and discussions with legal experts. “This trip was a phenomenal finish to my undergraduate career at NU,” says senior Zoe Goodman.

The experience gave students further context for understanding the Supreme Court. As with most of its cases, the Court took this particular case, Hillman v. Maretta, because of its history of conflict among the lower courts. The case involves the question of whether a federal statute preempts a state law that allows a lawsuit against someone who has received life insurance proceeds under the Federal Employees Group Life Insurance Act.

“It is actually representative of the Court's docket, where about 75 percent of the cases involve interpreting a federal law (not a provision of the Constitution), and most are not high-profile,” says Conlon.

After the argument, the SESP group met with Sidley Austin attorney Jeff Green, who has argued before the Supreme Court and also instructs at Northwestern Law School. “Sidley is known for establishing one of the first and most prestigious Supreme Court practices in the city,” says Conlon. Green described how lawyers prepare for oral argument and discussed with students legal issues and policy implications.

Afterward, Stephanie Newbold, the current Supreme Court Fellow, gave the group the same presentation about the Court that she gives to visiting international delegations. Newbold is on leave as an assistant professor at the School of Public Affairs at American University. “She seemed most impressed with the idea that the Court is a community that has its own traditions and expectations, but that is relatively unknown outside its own walls,” says Conlon.

The group then met with Lauren Willard, one of Justice Anthony Kennedy's four law clerks. Both of these meetings took place in the Lawyer's Lounge, where the clerk briefs oral advocates prior to argument. Willard described her duties as a law clerk and also her work day, which typically begins at 7 a.m. and ends at 8 p.m.

A private tour of the Court followed, including stories about the first eight justices who have their portraits on display in the East and West Conference rooms. “The students also each had a chance to stand at the podium in the courtroom, where it truly is inspiring to think about the lawyers who have gone before to argue cases such as Brown v. Board of Education,” Conlon notes.

“I have been looking forward to this class and the trip to DC since I took my first class with Professor Conlon as a freshman,” says Goodman. She observed differences among the Justices and was impressed with Willard, a young woman who is “making history at work every day.” Goodman says the trip was “definitely one of the best parts of my four years at NU. Thanks to Professor Conlon and SESP for providing such a wonderful opportunity to us!”

“I think the best part of the trip was getting to see the justices' personalities at play. We had been learning about the justices as individuals and the court as an institution for a while now, so actually seeing Breyer crack a joke to Thomas under his breath was wonderful. Also, seeing how different justices asked questions and thinking about what point they were really trying to make by asking that particular question was very fun,” says SESP senior Jessi Sharpe.

Students were selected for the trip on the basis of an application. Other SESP participants were Bonnie Alexander, Diana Balitaan, Kameron Dodge, Zoe Goodman, Janelle Henney, Kiley Naas and Jessi Sharpe. The SESP Opportunities Fund helped to support student participation. Conlon has been taking student groups to the Supreme Court since 2005.

Photo: (Front row) Zoe Goodman, Diana Balitaan, Bonnie Alexander, Kimberly Railey (Medill), Jessi Sharpe; (back row) Kameron Dodge, Kiley Naas, Cindy Conlon, Janelle Henney and Zachary Sanderson (WCAS).

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 5/16/13