Annual Meeting 2009

Starr Giddy Over Sotomayor; Panel Recalls Alito Reciting 'Imagine' #ABAChicago

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When former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr depicted Sonia Sotamayor injecting the U.S. Supreme Court with flair and excitement, he sounded a wee bit like a teenager with a crush.

“We’ve all fallen in love with her remarkable life story,” Starr told ABA members listening to a panel on the Roberts Supreme Court. “Despite some controversy over her ‘wise Latina’ statement, she’s gifted and thoughtful. Unlike the other justices, except Roberts and Alito, she has experience as a litigator. She knows what the Old Bailey looks like. She’s been a prosecutor. One of the great dividing lines in this court has been the use of judicial power. She will be comfortable with very strong use of judicial power.”

Stanford University legal scholar Pam Karlan was blunter about the need for more female perspective on the big bench. She cited the case of the 13-year-old-girl strip-searched by school officials who thought she had illegal prescription drugs.

“Justice Stephen Breyer kept talking about how being stripped naked is no big deal because when he was a kid, people were always sticking stuff in his underwear and touching his underwear,” Karlan said. “It was weird! Maybe the experience of being strip-searched is different for a young girl. This was a case when gender mattered.”

Yale Law School professor Drew Days demurred.

“It’s the kind of experience men usually go through when they’re getting their military physical,” he said.

The panel bubbled with enthusiasm over the strange and possibly revolutionary case of Pleasant Grove City v. Summum. A small Utah town accepts an inspirational and religious sculpture donated to its park. But when an obscure religious sect wanted to donate a monument inscribed with the Seven Aphorisms of Summum, Pleasant Grove said no. “The Summumanians said God wanted to give Moses the Seven Aphorisms on Mount Olive, but God decided the Israelis weren’t ready for the message, so God gave Moses the Ten Commandments as a consolation prize,” Days said.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Pleasant Grove had the right to reject one monument and accept others because federal, state and municipal governments have the right to freedom of speech. The inscription on the Statue of Liberty, the names on the Vietnam War Memorial, the Central Park mosaic tribute to John Lennon that simply says one word—“Imagine”—are all ways our government expresses itself.

“Pleasant Grove may be fondly remembered as the case that prompted Justice Alito to recite the words to John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ for the record,” Days said.

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