For Article III groupies, the InterContinental Hotel in Chicago was the place to be last night. The annual meeting of the Seventh Circuit Bar Association and Judicial Conference of the Seventh Circuit attracted a bevy of judicial superstars, who mixed and mingled at the conference’s grand banquet.

The most notable luminary was Justice John Paul Stevens, the Circuit Justice for the Seventh Circuit (and a former judge of the Seventh Circuit himself). The 90-year-old Justice Stevens, who is stepping down from the Supreme Court at the end of this Term, was joined at the dinner by several of his possible successors.

Justice Stevens actually had the job of introducing one of them, Solicitor General Elena Kagan, who delivered the keynote address. In the audience were several other short-listers, including Judges Diane Wood and Ann Claire Williams, of the Seventh Circuit, and Judge Ruben Castillo, of the Northern District of Illinois (Chicago).

So, what went down at the dinner?

We were hoping for Justice Stevens to referee an arm-wrestling match between Elena Kagan and Diane Wood, with the winner taking his seat on the Court. Alas, that didn’t happen.

In fact, JPS completely ignored the elephant in the banquet room, according to the Chicago Tribune: “Stevens, who is retiring from the high court next month after 35 years, did not address his legal career or the high-stakes drama over his successor even though three of the most prominently named potential replacements were in the room listening to his comments.”

The courtly and courteous Justice Stevens, even if he ignored the topic of his successor, did not ignore the would-be successors themselves. As reported by Fox News, JPS entered the room along with Judge Wood (who, by the way, canceled class today at the University of Chicago Law School — might she be in Washington to meet with President Obama?). Justice Stevens also chatted before the dinner with Solicitor General Kagan (who, by the way, was interviewed by the president on Friday — her second such interview, since she was also interviewed for the seat now held by Justice Sonia Sotomayor).

Although Justice Stevens dodged the (awkward) topic of who might take his SCOTUS seat, others at the conference did not. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Seventh Circuit Bar President Michael Monico alluded to the topic when introducing the justice: “My mother is 96 years of age and she was wondering, Justice Stevens, if you weren’t leaving the bench a little early. Although I’ll venture to say that there are some people here tonight, Justice, who think your timing is impeccable.” (This remark generated laughter from the shortlisters in attendance.)

Justice Stevens then took the stage to introduce Solicitor General Kagan. This struck us as odd. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t the Solicitor General introduce the Supreme Court Justice? Abdon Pallasch of the Sun-Times explains:

Stevens has been coming to this event — a conference of lawyers and judges who practice in the federal courts of Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, the “7th Circuit” — for 50 years. And, even though everyone wanted him to be the guest of honor with his retirement so imminent, he insisted on a humble role as usual: just giving an eight minute introductory speech for Solicitor General Elena Kagan, 40 years his junior, a leading prospect to replace him on the court.

She begged him in his chambers and again here to let him take the place of honor, but “I pulled rank,” Stevens said.

Very self-effacing of Justice Stevens. And he kept his remarks mercifully brief — which was a good thing, since the dinner ran long this year. (One ATL reader in attendance quipped, “The dinner is lasting three times what it should, like a Roman symposium with less vomiting.”)

So JPS insisted on the humble role of introducing Kagan. But the clever Kagan got the last laugh, according to the Sun Times:

Kagan made her speech a roast/tribute to Stevens, calling him the “hardest working justice on the court” and the only one who writes all his own drafts while most justices let their clerks write drafts….

Kagan praised Stevens as “The only justice that asks permission to ask a question: ‘May I ask you a question? Can you help me on this?'” Kagan proposed a question to the lawyers and judges: “How fortunate was this country to have had Justice Stevens’ service over these last 35 years? This country was fortunate beyond all measure.”

Not surprisingly, several ATL correspondents were in the audience. One of them offered us an excellent account of the evening’s proceedings:

The speeches were interesting for how they met the rhetorical moment. I sort of expected a stemwinder from JPS, but what he did instead was perhaps more in character: he told two modest anecdotes. It was really a very charming valedictory from a beloved figure.

One of the anecdotes related to baseball (which is a sport, so we disclaim all knowledge — and interest). You can read about it here. The other was more interesting:

Stevens wanted to correct what he said was a misconception that retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor ended the practice of referring to Supreme Court justices as “Mister Justice.” A few years before she came to the high court, a woman judge complained to Stevens that she did not like being called “Madame Justice” so Stevens and Potter Stewart dropped “Mister” and “Madame” and recommended calling all justices just “Justice,” he said.

“I thought I would straighten out the record on that,” he said.

UPDATE: A dinner attendee sent in this addendum, noting how Justice Stevens, a member of the Elect (OT 1947 / Rutledge), gave a shout-out to a fellow member of that elite club:

The plaques in front of the Justices’ chairs used to read “Mr. Justice So-and-So.” Stevens mentioned, “Diane [Wood], of course, will remember that when she was there, her Justice’s chair said ‘Mr. Justice Blackmun.'”

Back to our correspondent:

Kagan was, somebody pointed out, in the lions’ den: a popular vote there would have been lopsided. So she did something pretty canny, in my opinion: she went into ode-mode and kept it pretty short. She came across as a smart, funny, slightly sassy SG.

The SG’s sassiness, both in and out of court, is well-documented. See, e.g., here and here (opening paragraphs of each article).

Basically everyone stayed away from succession speculation, which is probably for the best. Everyone can agree that JPS is a monumental character, and there is no good reason to overshadow his valediction with what is still, at this stage, still a very intense parlor game.

So that pretty much covers the dinner. Of course, oodles of legal and judicial celebrities were spotted at the conference proceedings during the day.

An ATL tipster reported almost tripping over Patrick Fitzgerald, U.S. Attorney for Chicago and Plamegate prosecutor, at one of the talks. Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook was spotted playing with his new iPad.

One conference attendee told us that television cameras — yes, television cameras — were present at a panel on the scintillating subject of pleading standards post-Iqbal. Why on earth?

Because of the starpower of one of the panelists. According to the Sun-Times:

Appellate Judge Diane Wood, earlier Monday moderated a very dry seminar about changing standards for dismissing lawsuits. As cameras snapped pictures of Wood, panelist Michael Brody quipped: “I’m glad to see the press is finally taking notice of the importance of this issue.”

One of Wood’s selling points is her ability, despite her often liberal rulings, to develop a great rapport with her more conservative colleagues on the Chicago-based 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. She has even been able to sway them to her way of thinking on a few cases. Her backers hope she might work the same magic on Anthony Kennedy or the more conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Conservative University of Chicago Law Prof. Richard Epstein, a long-time friend, gave Wood a kiss on the head as he left the panel.

A peck on the head, bestowed upon Judge Wood by Professor Epstein? How fabulous! Does anyone have a photograph of this moment? For a legal tabloid like Above the Law, this image is the equivalent of Lindsay Lohan sans panties.

P.S. Speaking of photos and video of the proceedings — yes, Justice Stevens wore his trademark bowtie — check out Fox News.

Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens silent on his replacement in speech [Chicago Tribune via How Appealing]
Stevens didn’t drop the ball [Chicago Sun-Times]
Justice Stevens Honored In Hometown [Fox News]


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