Garland Dishes SCOTUS Humor as DC Circuit Goes to School

Merrick Garland

Merrick Garland. Credit: Diego M. Radzinschi / ALM

Even Judge Merrick Garland had time to crack U.S. Supreme Court jokes during a hearing Thursday, winking at his denied nomination to the nation’s highest court.

The comments came during a sitting of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit at Georgetown Law, where Chief Judge Garland and Judges Sri Srinivasan and A. Raymond Randolph heard two cases. The special session was part of the appeals court’s revival of “circuit riding”—a throwback to the nation's early years when justices were required to preside over cases in federal circuit courts, often criss-crossing the country by horse.

Garland told students that justices detested the practice—so much so that Chief Justice John Jay left the role for a governorship in 1795, and later turned down an offer to return to the bench, in part because he couldn’t continue on with riding circuit.

"Apparently serving on the U.S. Supreme Court just isn’t what it’s cracked up to be," Garland said Thursday, to a roomful of laughing students. Even Srinivasan let out a laugh.

Garland noted another jurist, Thomas Johnson, abandoned the bench partly over his distaste for circuit riding. (Johnson is considered to hold the record for the shortest tenure at the Supreme Court.) That made “two people who didn’t think serving on the Supreme Court was all that," Garland said, again to laughter.

Thanks to Garland, the D.C. Circuit has enjoyed its own modern-day, and more modest, version of riding the circuit. Since 2013, the appeals court has made it a habit of holding a special sitting each term at one of the district's law schools.

After Thursday's arguments, the chief judge said he revived the tradition with the idea of bringing the court's work to D.C. residents and students. He noted it’s “not always easy” for law students to go to Washington’s federal courthouse.

Since then, the court has visited all six of the district's law schools, which also include Howard University, the Catholic University of America, George Washington University, the University of the District of Columbia and American University. Thursday's visit to Georgetown marked the court's second time there.

The first set of arguments Thursday centered around the denial of a man's bid to withdraw his guilty plea. He was indicted in 2015 on a child pornography charge.

The second case featured UPS Ground Freight Inc.’s legal spat with the National Labor Relations Board over union elections, a case that has drawn interest from business groups.

The judges asked their usual questions from a wooden dais that bore the D.C. Circuit’s seal. They were seated before a rich blue curtain backdrop, instead of the more muted walls at the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse.

Only a few feet separated the judges’ dais from the attorneys’ lectern and counsel tables, but the tight quarters didn’t seem to fluster the lawyers.

Garland said a reception with students often follows the special sessions. Judges will mingle with students, though they’ll steer clear of discussing cases.

Georgetown Law Dean William Treanor, who introduced the panel Thursday, said after the event that the school was pleased the D.C. Circuit was back at Georgetown’s campus, where the court's first special session was held.

He called it a “privilege for students” to see the court’s work there, and noted that admitted students were also touring the campus Thursday. He said he couldn’t “imagine a better introduction to the law” than the morning’s arguments.

The D.C. Circuit isn’t alone in its “circuit riding” reboot. Other federal appeals courts—including the Fourth, Ninth and Fifth circuits—have similarly traveled to law schools.