The Marble Palace Blog: What it’s really like to argue in front of SCOTUS


Thank you for reading The Marble Palace blog, which I hope will inform and surprise you about the Supreme Court of the United States. My name is Tony Mauro. I’ve covered the Supreme Court since 1979 and for ALM since 2000. I semi-retired in 2019, but I’m still fascinated by the high court. I will be happy to receive advice or suggestions for topics to write. You can reach me at [email protected].

Books on the United States Supreme Court, its cases, and its judges are numerous. But it’s hard to find books about the arduous, intense, behind-the-scenes process lawyers go through to argue in court.

Now, there is such a book, and every appellate attorney or Supreme Court aficionado should read it. In the book, “At the Altar of the Appellate Gods: Arguing Before the US Supreme Court,” author Lisa Sarnoff Gochman has pulled back the court’s velvet curtain to reveal the highs, lows, and in-betweens of advocacy at the Supreme Court. The release date is October 1, but the book is available for pre-order on Amazon and elsewhere.

Cover of the book “At the Altar of the Appellate Gods” by Lisa Sarnoff Gochman. Courtesy of the editor

Gochman, currently an attorney in the Monmouth County District Attorney’s Office in New Jersey, appeared before the Supreme Court 22 years ago in Learned v. New Jersey, a landmark case that any lawyer, professor or student of criminal law will remember. Arguing his first and only time in high court, Gochman represented New Jersey and lost by a vote of 5-4.

Her book is frank, funny and page-turning, as Gochman prepares the inside details leading up to the day of oral argument on March 28, 2000. She recounts the days and weeks before the argument, with the briefing, the mock courts and the jitters .

I asked Gochman why she wrote the book. “My goal was to demystify the litigation process at the Supreme Court,” she said. “A lot of lawyers, as well as most non-lawyers, don’t know or care much about appellate litigation because it’s not as sexy as trial work. But it is the appellate courts that make the legal decisions affecting every aspect of our lives, and it is the appellate lawyers who help shape the law through their persuasive presentations before the appellate courts. And SCOTUS is the ultimate court of appeal.

After agreeing to plead in court, Gochman wrote in the book, “Family life was completely sidelined. I barely saw my husband Steven and missed most of my nine-year-old son Jordan’s school year,” she wrote, adding, “If the law is a jealous mistress, then SCOTUS is a despised woman.”

As the argument approached, things became chaotic. A few days before the argument, a valet at the hotel where she was staying crashed her car into a mailbox, a trash can and two parked cars. “I don’t need this stress,” she muttered more than once. She called a colleague from New Jersey and said, “What the hell was I thinking? It’s the Supreme Court of the United States, for God’s sake. Why did I think I could do this?

Gochman went to the day of the argument, and before the session started, the court clerk told the lawyers about things they shouldn’t do, like calling a judge or peeking. at the clock above the bench. They were also offered cough drops, aspirin, bandages and, yes, smelling salts, of all things. “I was comforted to know that the swoon in the Supreme Court of the United States was not unprecedented,” she wrote.

When Gochman’s turn came to argue, Chief Justice William Rehnquist began, inauspiciously, by calling him Mr. Gochman, though he quickly corrected himself. In 20 minutes, Gochman answered 59 questions, many of them from judge Antonin Scalia. At one point, when Scalia challenged her, she replied, “Two responses to that, Your Honor.” She rattled off the first answer, but suddenly blanked out the second. Fortunately, Scalia interrupted her anyway and she didn’t have to explain the second answer.

I covered the Learned argument that day, and wrote that the judges were “in a bad mood.” I added, “During a heated exchange, Scalia cut Gochman off so many times that Rehnquist turned to him and said, ‘Let her answer. Scalia snapped, “She’s answering the wrong question, CJ.”

Gochman was “completely crushed” when she learned she had lost, she wrote in the book, but over time she said, “Winning my case would have been nice, but I’m done with it. that”.

When asked if she still wanted to plead in the high court, Gochman told me, “Never. I had a wonderful time chatting Learned and it could only go downhill from there.


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