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Arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court is daunting at any time. But arguing there for the first time � that’s the ne plus ultra of fear, exhilaration, and unpredictability. Talbot D’Alemberte lost ten pounds before his first argument ten years ago. Ian Macpherson lost his lunch the day before he argued for the first time in 1980. They and 12 other lawyers recount their “first time” Supreme Court arguments in the latest issue of The Journal of Appellate Practice and Process, published by the William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas. The essays are as useful and riveting as law review prose can get, full of personal asides and details. For Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe, the memories of his first argument in 1980 are sadly intertwined with those of his father’s death two weeks before. The argument in what turned out to be the landmark Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia case could not be rescheduled, and Tribe grieved while preparing. “In none of the 30 or so Supreme Court cases that I’ve argued since . . . have I passed the days leading up to oral argument in anything like the unfocused, disoriented frame of mind in which I felt those days and nights slip by,” Tribe writes. His distraction led to one of his few missteps before the Court. Before his father died, he had planned to visit the Hanover County, Virginia, courthouse that was the focus of the case. But he never made the visit, and when then-associate justice William Rehnquist asked him during oral argument where Hanover County was, Tribe was tempted to explain why he did not know. But he remembers thinking, “I couldn’t appear to be asking for his sympathy,” so he answered this way: “It’s some miles from Richmond, Mr. Justice.” To which the associate justice, with a map spread out before him, replied, “Well . . . most places are some miles from Richmond.” Tribe did not feel embarrassed by his lapse. “Big whoop,” he writes. Other authors do concede embarrassment in recalling certain moments. J. Richard Cohen, general counsel of the Southern Poverty Law Center, recalls that during his 1986 argument in United States v. Paradise, Justice Byron White asked him a question that Cohen simply did not understand. “The moment presented me with a terrible dilemma,” Cohen writes. “Should I start babbling and hope that I’d say something responsive? Or should I announce in front of the world that I didn’t get it, thereby confirming that I had no business being there in the first place?” Cohen writes that he paused and said, “Your Honor, I regret to say that I do not understand your point.” It was the right thing to say, because Justice White simply rephrased his question without any ado. “It was no big deal,” Cohen recalls. Emory University Law School professor David Bederman says that he ended the rebuttal in his first argument in 1993 by telling the Court, “I have no further substantive points.” Chief Justice Rehnquist could not resist this retort: “Do you have any nonsubstantive points?” Amid laughter, Bederman deftly replied, “I will not rise to that invitation, Chief Justice.” Arkansas law professor J. Thomas Sullivan recalls the comedy of errors that preceded his 1985 debut at the Court. Days before his argument, Sullivan was playing with his 1-year-old daughter, and planted a suction-cup toy on his forehead. “When I finally dislodged the thing, it had left a large, well-defined red circle in the middle of my forehead that looked exactly like a target,” Sullivan writes. He spent two days frantically trying to make it go away. Thankfully it disappeared the day he flew to Washington, D.C.
A version of this story originally appeared in The American Lawyer, a sibling publication of Corporate Counsel and a part of American Lawyer Media.

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