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Election 2000: Attorneys Herbert J. Miller, Sara Weddington and Elizabeth Holtzman Discuss Arguing Before U.S. Supreme CourtAired December 1, 2000 - 9:30 a.m. ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: And the opportunity to try a case before the nine Supreme Court justices is, arguably, the high point of any attorney's legal career. We have a great opportunity here this morning: a chance to talk with three attorneys who have had that incredible experience.
Attorney Sara Weddington successfully argued the landmark abortion case Rowe Versus Wade before the high court in 1976. Herbert Miller, an assistant attorney general during the Kennedy and Johnson years, as well as former counsel to President Nixon was able to argue before the court on the Nixon Papers case. And former U.S. congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, who served on the house judiciary committee.
Ladies and gentleman, good morning to all of you, and thanks for joining us.
HERBERT J. MILLER, JR., FORMER NIXON COUNSEL: Good morning.
SARAH WEDDINGTON, ROE VERSUS WADE ATTORNEY: Good morning.
ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN, FORMER U.S. REPRESENTATIVE: Good morning.
KAGAN: Mr. Miller, we're going to start with you, since you did argue the Nixon Papers case and that was a case that the high court had to look at how strong and what were the boundaries of a certain branch of government, in this case, congressional powers, and if they were allowed, how far was Congress was allowed to go.
Do you think that the high court, as they will have to today, has particular sensitivity when it has to look at how strong and how far a particular branch of government can go?
MILLER: I don't think there's any questions that that will be one of the issues before the court. There is always a question, first, of jurisdiction, which I assume has already been taken care of. But then, the impact of the decision and its reaching effect will have to be considered by the court. They did that in the Nixon Papers case, they did that in the -- when they -- Nixon immunity case. And they held that President Nixon, as all other presidents, had absolute immunity from any civil actions brought while brought while he was president of the United States. KAGAN: And then on a personal note, when you're before the high court arguing something of that great importance, what was that like for you?
MILLER: Well, the first time that I argued, I can't tell you how many years ago, but it was a long...
KAGAN: We won't count.
MILLER: It was 20, 30, 40 years. But it was terrifying. The other case of it I've had, including Eastland -- representing the Senate judiciary committee and Senator Eastland -- all three cases of very, very constitutional principals, and any lawyer is honored to have the opportunity to address the court on issues of major substance, major constitutional substance. It is a -- it is a wonderful experience, and anybody that can do it, I strongly recommend it.
KAGAN: Sarah Weddington, now to you. It was remarkable to me to find out you were are only 26 years old in 1976 when you argued in front of the Supreme Court in Roe Versus Wade. How does a 26-year-old young woman end up in such an important position?
WEDDINGTON: Well, you volunteer to file a very important case and then take it all the way to the court. But right now, my heart is racing just remembering what it was like. Right now, the lawyers -- the champions for the two sides, who will not wear suits of armor, but are sharpening their words and legal concepts -- they are in the lawyer's lounge at this moment just getting ready to go in.
But they're thinking at a more personal level. They've had four seats to give to family or friends or special attorneys, people are beginning to be processed into the courtroom, 125 members of the press. You have the family and friends of the justices in that section, the public section. While they're arguing, every three minutes a group will come out, a group will go out. There are heavy curtains to hold down the noise.
They will each be given a handmade goose quill pen. It will be at their place when they go into the courtroom, and it is a souvenir to take for having argued in the U.S. Supreme Court.
There will be a huge light -- a huge clock just above the chief justice a few feet away, so they can watch the minutes of their oral argument ticking by.
The spectators are now being told they cannot chew gum, they cannot have any written materials, they cannot whisper, they cannot put their arm on the back of their seats -- they will be in very strict rules by the U.S. Supreme Court.
But for those who are the legal championships today, they are really the ones who are trying to sharpen those words and concepts right now. They know once they address the court, it's going to be questions: They're not going to get to just give a speech, it's going to be questions. And once the argument is over, their words will be on the Internet, they will leave the court to face members of the press and give interviews. But if you had a Geiger counter that could pick up history, it would be clicking madly at this point.
KAGAN: It certainly would.
Let's bring in Elizabeth Holtzman at this point.
Ms. Holtzman, do you remember who the four people that were who you invited to witness your historic moment before the high court?
HOLTZMAN: They were, actually, members of my staff of my House when I was district attorney.
KAGAN: All of the help you could get?
HOLTZMAN: All the help we could get and some former staff of Congress. But I remember being a little bit terrified, but preparing like crazy for that important moment.
KAGAN: Well, give me an a little bit of insight --give me a little bit of insight on that preparation: How do you get ready for something like this?
HOLTZMAN: Well, you hit the books. You read every case, and you read it over and over. And you read the statutes, and then what I did, and many lawyers do, is have what's known as a moot court: You kind of go through a dress rehearsal. You have friends and as brilliant people as you can find who just stand there, pretend they're the Supreme Court justices, and throw questions at you, and you've got to try to try to answer them. And go through several sessions like that so you're really prepared, so that you know you can anticipate any questions that they're going to ask you and have an appropriate answer.
Part of that is your responsibility as a lawyer, because you're there not just as an advocate for your side, but to educate the court and respond to what their concerns are and help educate them about how your concerns intercept with the constitution and why you should win the case.
It's a very, very draining and important process, but I think the most important thing about arguing before the court, and something that made me feel so proud as an American, you have the highest court in the land, and yet when you stand up to argue, they're really at eye level with you. It's like a conversation, it's very informal.
KAGAN: You weren't intimidated.
HOLTZMAN: I wasn't when I stood -- I was intimidated before. Here I am, you know: My parents are immigrants of this country, and I'm walking up the steps of the Supreme Court and getting to argue a case about the Fourth Amendment and the Constitution that involves states' rights as well, and yet when I stood up, I was just another human being whom I respected, and I respected them, and it was an extraordinarily informal dialogue. And of course, they hit you with questions, but it's still just such respect for you as a lawyer, because your responsibility is to help -- help shape the Constitutional and the future of this country. And it's a fantastic experience.
KAGAN: Incredible perspective. We're going to continue our conversation with our three guests after -- after this break, giving us more of an idea of what it is like before -- to go before the high court, including what kind of facilities are available.
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