Justice Stevens and Judge Gonzalez speak at inaugural Marshall Criser Lecture

Published: November 24th, 2008

Category: Events, News

Justice John Paul Stevens

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice John Paul Stevens paid a visit to the UF campus for a special conversation with students, faculty, alumni and friends. He discussed issues ranging from how politics affects the court, to how he hopes to be remembered. (UF Law/ Chen Wang)

Justice John Paul Stevens and Judge Jose A. Gonzalez Jr. devoted part of their joint presentation on the UF Campus on Nov. 17 to offering free advice to law students.

Stevens, the most senior United States Supreme Court Justice, said lawyers often overlook oral arguments in their cases.

“I think it’s a mistake many people make to assume they’re not important, because oral arguments are very important,” Stevens said. “There are many, many cases where you … hear oral arguments and are sometimes persuaded again… There are many cases which the result has been changed by the oral advocacy that we get.”

Oral arguments are one of the most underrated parts of advocacy, agreed Gonzalez (UF JD 57), who is a U.S. District Court Judge in the Southern District of Florida.

Gonzalez remembers waiting to argue one of his cases when he saw another lawyer make a dynamic oral argument in which the lawyer spoke about the people rather than the law.

“I can remember that argument as if it was given five minutes ago,” Gonzalez said. “I thought, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen in this case, but if he doesn’t win, it’s an injustice.’ I hadn’t read the briefs; I didn’t know the law.”

Stevens also remembered some great oral advocates, including Thurgood Marshall, who was later appointed to the Supreme Court, and the current Chief Justice of the United States, John. G. Roberts Jr., who argued many cases before the Court before joining it.

The two old friends were on campus as part of the inaugural Marshall M. Criser Distinguished Lecture at the University of Florida Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. The pair met about 25 years ago, Gonzalez said.

“We spend a lot of time discussing Washington Redskins football, Florida football, and judicial salaries and benefits,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez stressed that judicial salaries have become a big problem in attracting top lawyers away from private practice. Gonzalez said he makes less money than he did 30 years ago accounting for inflation.

Congress recently gave a cost-of-living adjustment to all federal employees and all members of Congress, Gonzalez said, leaving only federal judges out.

“We’re spending billions of dollars for the war in Iraq, and we can’t afford to compensate a handful of federal judges. That’s just crazy. We need to rearrange our priorities and put the money where it is going to produce long-term benefits: one is getting the best people on the bench and the other is to adequately fund the education system,” Gonzalez said to a loud applause.

Stevens and Gonzalez took questions from Professor Sharon Rush, Professor Michael Wolf and Florida Law Review Editor in Chief Larry Dougherty. They asked a wide variety of questions, many of which were highly relevant to law students.

“Don’t you think the opinions are getting excessively long these days?” Gonzalez asked Stevens.

“Yes, I am probably responsible for some of that,” Stevens responded.

Justice Jose A. Gonzalez Jr.

Judge Jose A. Gonzalez Jr. (JD 57) joined Justice Stevens in a conversation on current legal issues in front of students, faculty, alumni and friends of the UF College of Law. (UF Law/ Chen Wang)

The two also disagreed on the use of footnotes in cases. Gonzalez said the model Supreme Court case was footnote-free, while Stevens is a big proponent of them.

“I think the footnote is optional reading,” Stevens said. “You don’t have to read the footnote, but sometimes it may be good to spell out in more detail something that is really important that you’re thinking that doesn’t necessarily fit into the rationale.”

Dougherty jokingly replied, “Justice Stevens, some of our professors here have us under the impression that footnotes are required reading.”

Rush smiled and assured students that they are still required reading.

Wolf asked about the doctrine of stare decisis, which says courts should let precedent stand. Stevens said he gives strong deference to precedence, even if he disagrees with the decision, as in Texas v. Johnson, a 1989 case which protected flag burning as a form of free speech.

“I think very strongly that that case was incorrectly decided for all sorts of reasons that I won’t go on to waste your time with,” Stevens said. “But I would never suggest that it should be overruled. I think it was a firm decision, I think the country has accepted it, and I think it is part of the law and should remain the law.”

When Stevens and Gonzalez were asked for general advice for law students, Gonzalez was quick with a joke.

“Whatever you do, don’t sue people who don’t have any money, because there’s no future in it,” he said.

On a more serious note, Gonzalez advised students to always ask for help when needed.

“When you first get into the practice, you’re going to find out that you don’t know an awful lot,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to admit that there is something you don’t know. Go ask somebody older than you or more experienced than you, and you’ll be surprised how happy they will be to help you out.”

Stevens said to always keep your word most importantly.

“When you graduate, you become part of a profession, and one of the most important assets that you will have if you’re going to be a good lawyer is your word,” Stevens said. “If your word is good and you have the reputation for being trusted for what you say and your understanding of the law, that will pay more dividends than you can possibly imagine.”