In an intimateand very personal conventional setting, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice John Paul Stevens and his close friend and colleague U.S. District Court Judge Jose A. Gonzalez Jr. (JD 57), a judge in the Southern District of Florida, shared their judicial philosophies, insights and inside jokes with an audience of 700 UF Law students and faculty.
The two old friends were on campus as part of the Inaugural Marshall M. Criser Distinguished Lecture at the University of Florida Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts on Nov. 17. The lecture series was established with a gift from Lewis Schott (LLB 46) as a tribute to former UF President Marshall Criser (LLB 51).
During the conversation, Stevens and Gonzalez interacted with Professor Sharon Rush, Professor Michael Wolf and Florida Law Review Editor in Chief Larry Dougherty, who posed questions previously submitted by students and faculty.
The answers of the two jurists revealed a deep devotion to the law and offered unique perspectives on the finer points of legal advocacy that only judges can impart.
“Oral argument is, if not the most important, one of the most important parts of the case,” Gonzalez said, “because the first thing you have to do as an advocate is gain the attention of your audience and you can do that orally much easier than you can with the written word.” Wolf asked about Stevens’ perspective on stare decisis, the doctrine of allowing precedent to stand in court decisions.
Stevens said he gives strong deference to precedence, even if he disagrees with the decision, as he did in Texas v. Johnson, a 1989 Supreme Court case which protected flag burning as a form of free speech.
“I feel very strongly that case was incorrectly decided for all sorts of reasons … But, I would
never suggest that it should be overruled,” Stevens said. “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.”
Stevens went on to note there are instances in which he feels the precedent should not rule.
“I have rather consistently disagreed with some of the sovereign immunity jurisprudence in the court,” Stevens said.
“It just seems to me there is a fundamental misunderstanding about the correct relationship between the states and the federal government that is entitled to continuing examination.”
Both Stevens and Gonzalez offered wise words when asked to share general advice to the law students in the audience.
“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…. . Go ask somebody older than you or more experienced than you, and you’ll be surprised how happy they will be to help.”
Stevens advised that keeping one’s word is most important.
“When you graduate, you become part of a profession,” Stevens said. “If your word is good and you have the reputation for being trusted for what you say, both for facts and for your understanding of the law, that will pay more dividends than you can possibly imagine.”
“Just remember, your reputation as a person of honor is very hard to achieve,” Stevens said, “but nothing is more valuable to a lawyer than his word.”