Knowingly or not, most Supreme Court advocates have interacted with Mayer Brown partner Stephen Shapiro by poring through “Supreme Court Practice,” the tome he co-authored that tells how to navigate the arcane traditions, rules and preferences of the court.
The depth and seriousness of the book and of Shapiro himself makes his violent death on Monday, at the age of 72, all the more stunning. He spent his professional life quietly building a Supreme Court practice when such a thing was rare. In the book, he told his colleagues and adversaries how the institution works.
And in practice, he applied and honed his knowledge with 30 oral arguments before the justices.
Shapiro also helped this journalist over many years by answering obscure questions about the court. Was it improper for justices to do their own research in cases, gathering information that could be inaccurate? No, Shapiro said, adding that the danger of occasional flubs is “greatly outweighed” by the benefit of letting justices “think and do research about the real-world aspects of matters before them.”
How important is the “Question Presented” page that starts off a Supreme Court brief? Surpassingly so, he said, calling it “the most important page in the entire document. It should be the colorful fly that irresistibly leads to a strike.”
Shapiro’s colleagues, taking to social media Tuesday, mourned his death. Kannon Shanmugam, the Williams & Connolly appellate practice leader, called Shapiro ”as modest as he was brilliant” and noted that Shapiro “literally wrote the book on Supreme Court advocacy.”
Shapiro was an advocate for intense preparation, stating in an interview that he tried to spend a full month getting ready for a Supreme Court argument. Ironically, in the argument he made that I most vividly remember, he had only two days to prepare.
It was Keeton v. Hustler, a 1983 libel case that raised a jurisdictional issue involving Larry Flynt’s racy magazine. Just before argument, Flynt fired his lawyer and told the court he wanted to represent himself.
Instead, the court recruited Shapiro, who had written an amicus brief on Flynt’s side. “Forty-eight hours later, I argued the case before the Supreme Court,” Shapiro once recalled. His able argument was overshadowed when Flynt shouted obscenities at the justices. Flynt was arrested, and the court voted 9-0 against him.
It would have been hard to fault Shapiro for the loss.