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VOL. 122 | NO. 191 | Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Scalia Follows Ginsburg's Lead With Dec. Visit

By Andy Meek

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HEADED THIS WAY: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia will be the keynote speaker Dec. 17 at the Benjamin L. Hooks Luncheon sponsored by the Memphis Bar Foundation. -- Photo By The Associated Press

A little more than a year after one of his closest friends on the U.S. Supreme Court flew to Memphis to address a gathering of legal professionals, Justice Antonin Scalia is coming to town to do the same.

About 1,000 people are expected to pack The Peabody Hotel's Grand Ballroom to hear Scalia Dec. 17, when the feisty and fiercely conservative justice gives the keynote address at the annual Benjamin L. Hooks Luncheon.

Scalia - like his friend on the court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg - also will be presented with the Benjamin L. Hooks Award by the Memphis Bar Foundation, which is sponsoring the luncheon. The award is given to attorneys or judges on both the local and national levels who are considered to have advanced the goals of the foundation.

Sold-out show

The foundation is the nonprofit charitable arm of the Memphis Bar Association. As a measure of the anticipation with which the MBF's imminent celebrity guest is being greeted within the local legal community, about one fourth of the available seats at the function already have been sold.

"Last year we were able to get Justice Ginsburg because Shep Tate, who is a lawyer in Memphis and the former president of the American Bar Association, knows her very well," said Barbara Zoccola, president of the MBF.

"So she responded to his invitation to come to Memphis and had such a good time that she encouraged Justice Scalia - who's a good friend of hers - to come, and we are very lucky that he accepted our invitation."

A Socratic method

Scalia, who's sometimes referred to by his nickname, Nino, is a 21-year veteran of the court. He was appointed by former president Ronald Reagan and widely is regarded as the warhorse of the court's conservative voting wing.

He possesses other qualities that also have made him a legendary figure on the court and which a smattering of Memphis attorneys has seen firsthand - traits such as his pugnacious mien, penchant for witty banter and frequent streams of hypothetical questions.

"What I remember about his performance during my argument is how he managed to inject levity into what was otherwise a pretty dull case," said Jan Chilton, who works in the Memphis office of the San Francisco-based law firm Severson & Werson. "One of the two principal cases that everyone in our case was citing was Newman vs. Piggie Park, and of course everybody just shortened that to Piggie Park.

"(Scalia) piped up in the middle of my argument and said something like, 'It would improve the solemnity of the occasion if we referred to the case as Newman rather than Piggie Park.' And, of course, everybody chuckled."

Backed into a corner

At press time, the subject of Scalia's address to the MBF had not yet been announced. His visit to the city marks the third time in about a decade that a sitting U.S. Supreme Court justice has spoken to attorneys here.

Prior to Ginsburg's presentation at the joint annual meetings of the MBA and MBF last year, Justice Clarence Thomas spoke at The Peabody in the late 1990s.

Local news accounts mention Scalia once visiting the old Summit Club, the now-closed private dining establishment that moved to the 33rd floor of Clark Tower in the 1970s.

Memphis attorney Don Donati last year won a case he argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of a client, Sheila White, who sued her employer - Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Co. - in a workplace retaliation case.

Good lawyers, Donati said, prepare hard for "Scalia questions."

"And one thing that the public probably doesn't realize is while they're really asking you questions, they don't always especially care about the answers," said Donati, an attorney at the Donati Law Firm. "Sometimes they do, but they're talking to their colleagues at the same time.

"They're trying to make a point in the argument that they want to drive home later in the deliberations of the court. And Scalia is very good at that, trying to put an advocate in a position of making a concession that can be used later."

Not above the law

It's likely that Donati and other Memphis lawyers who've beheld up close the myriad aspects of Scalia's personality immediately would recognize the high court justice as he appears in an anecdote found in pundit and television commentator Jeffrey Toobin's newly released book, "The Nine."

Several years ago, a snowstorm hit the nation's capital that left more than 20 inches of snow. The chief justice of the U.S. at that time, William Rehnquist, decreed that the day's court proceedings should go on as scheduled and sent drivers to fetch the various justices.

Scalia, who ended up riding with fellow justice Anthony Kennedy, had to walk about half a mile in waist-deep snow even to get to the car, Toobin writes. Later, in his frustration, Scalia bellowed to his driver, "By the power invested in me, I authorize you to run these lights!"

Kennedy replied, "Nino, we don't have the power to run a red light."

The car ended up arriving at the court building about 30 minutes early - enough time to allow Scalia to look over a brief before the court began the day's business.

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