Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Thoughts on Milwaukee

Warning: To the non-lawyers and non-nerds out there, this post probably won't be much fun. :)

Sunday through Tuesday I was in Milwaukee for the Seventh Circuit Bar Association's annual conference. I had a great time and actually learned quite a bit as well. Sunday night there was a reception at Milwaukee's Discovery Center, which is on the lake and gave us some nice views. I spent most of the evening talking to other clerks from the Seventh Circuit (the court I work for, if that is still unclear), although the two other clerks who work for my judge did not attend the conference. I also got to meet a couple district court judges from our circuit. It's nice to put faces to the names we regularly see on decisions being appealed.

The substantive parts of the conference began on Monday morning with an opening address by Joan Biskupic who covers the Supreme Court for USA Today. She had some interesting anecdotes about what her job is like. She told a story about how part of her job is reading clues about pending cases so that she can provide more depth in her immediate articles on the day an opinion is handed down. Next up was a panel of journalists who cover the Supreme Court, including Biskupic. Nothing too earth-shattering, but always interesting to hear from experts who have been watching the Court for decades. Following that panel was another panel about law blogs, featuring Howard Bashman of How Appealing, Ann Althouse of Althouse, and Eugene Volokh of The Volokh Conspiracy among others. I read the first and last in that list pretty often, so it was fun to see those bloggers in person. The highlight was a contentious moment at the end when a member of the audience asked if bloggers felt that they were acting unethically as lawyers when they use their blogs to try to sway judges' opinions of cases. The panel seemed to strongly disagree that blogs do anything differently from other means of influence we view as innocuous -- legal scholarship, op-eds, etc. Interesting food for thought.

At lunch on Monday, following Chief Judge Easterbrook's short update on the State of the Circuit, we got a short talk from Brady Williamson, a lawyer who was involved in the drafting of the Iraqi Constitution. This was one of my favorites parts of the day as Williamson walked the crowd through some interesting turns of phrases (translated, of course) in the Iraqi Constitution that are vague as the result of necessary compromises and will likely require court interpretation. Fascinating to see that, if the Iraqi government is sustainable, its judiciary is facing down some extraordinary constitutional interpretation tasks along the likes of what our Supreme Court (and other courts) have been doing for 200+ years.

One example Williamson gave is that the Iraqi Constitution says that Islam "is a fundamental source of legislation." He pointed out the use of the article "a" instead of "the" and said this word choice came after significant debate. Another clause says "No law that contradicts the established provisions of Islam may be established." Williamson pointed to the phrase "established provisions" and said that no one knows exactly how "established" a provision of Islam has to be to qualify. Another piece of trivia about the ratification of the Iraqi constitution is that it had a ratification provision that if 2/3 of three or more provinces (18 or so total provinces, I think) in Iraq voted against, then the ratification would automatically fail even if popularly supported. In the Al Anbar province, which is majority Sunnis, 97% of the voters said no. In the Salah ad Dun province, 82% said no. The constitution was rejected by a majority in one other province, Ninawa, but only 55% of voters said no. The vote was very divided on ethnic lines in every province. I had no idea about any of this, so I'm glad to have a better understanding, and please forgive any spelling errors I have made.

Williamson's talk was followed by another talk on Iraq, this time by James Santelle, the current DoJ attache to Iraq. (The link explains in more detail exactly what he's up to in Baghdad.) He works with Iraq's judiciary, police and prison system. I'm not sure I can say much about the content of his speech without sounding political, but his obvious and enormous respect for the Iraqis with whom he works was impressive, to say the least.

Skipping past the afternoon panels involving judges on my court... the dinner featured short remarks by Justice John Paul Stevens and longer remarks by Solicitor General Paul Clement. Again, I can't say much about Clement's remarks, but generally he talked about the different roles that different parts of the Justice Department play and why those roles are properly kept separate. Justice Stevens told some interesting stories about getting the nomination call from President Ford, who he greatly admires to this day, and about housing his plane at Midway airport a few decades ago. Who knew?? The highlight for me, though, was capturing a great photo of Justice Stevens smiling while talking to my friend Kate, who will be clerking for him next year. I will post the photo soon. Justice Stevens, who I learned on Monday is just the third Justice to occupy his seat on the Supreme Court in the past 91 years(!!), looked and sounded fantastic. I was honored to hear him speak.

So that's the round up from Milwaukee. I drove back to Chicago on Tuesday morning with Kate and her fiance Chris -- or rather, I rode in the back seat while Chris drove. Thanks Chris!

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