Supreme Court Questioning Styles: Match the Justice with the Style

At USA Today, Jane Biskupic describes the questioning style of each of the Nine Justices.

See if you can match the Justice with the Style.

  • Head-on
  • In late for the kill
  • Rat-a-tat-fact
  • In-your-face
  • Setting the record straight
  • Hydra-headed hypos
  • Bottom line
  • Mr. No-Nonsense
  • Silent in his seat (too easy)

Answers after the Jump:

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Chief Justice John Roberts Style: Head-on

He sits at the center of the bench, smack in front of the lawyer at the lectern, and his sharp questions come quickly. When an attorney suggested his client might not have known he was carrying drugs in his truck and dismissed the cargo as “Styrofoam boxes and wrapped cardboard boxes,” Roberts shot back a question about the “drug paraphernalia in the cab and … marijuana in the cab, too.” The lawyer conceded, “Yes, there was, your honor.” In a separate case, Roberts chastised a lawyer for not fully quoting a relevant plaque in a church-state case, eliciting an apology. In the dogfighting dispute, he dropped a strict demeanor and thanked the two lawyers, both regulars before the court, “for very able presentation.”

Justice John Paul Stevens Style: In late for the kill

This court’s longest-serving justice (nearly 34 years) typically lets his colleagues jump in first and then with all politeness (“May I ask you this question?”) enters the fray to get to the nut of things. “Isn’t the basic argument you want to make … ?” he asked this week. Like some of the other justices, Stevens telegraphs his views to his colleagues and often offers up narrow grounds for agreement among the nine, as he did toward the end of a police-interrogation case on the court’s first day. “What would be wrong with a rule that said …” he began at one point in his deceptively deferential manner.

Justice Antonin Scalia Style: In-your-face

Scalia is always cracking wise and rattling the decorous white marble setting. He is lively in his manner (rocking in his chair, gesturing) and in his expressions, such as the reference to lawyers “who know diddly about immigration law.” He is the bluntest. When an ACLU lawyer said Jewish war veterans do not put crosses on their tombstones, Scalia retorted angrily, “I don’t think you can jump from that to the conclusion that the only war dead the cross honors are the Christian war dead. I think that is an outrageous conclusion.” In another argument, he termed a lawyer’s position “ridiculous.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy Style: Mr. No-Nonsense

When Kennedy speaks, people listen. He is in the middle of this divided court, and his vote often matters. His questions tend to be straightforward and sometimes do not reveal his hand. When they do, his tone can be ominous: “I think that is a very difficult rule that you are proposing,” he said in a Maryland case. It was not a good sign for the lawyer at the lectern.

Justice Clarence Thomas Style: Silent in his seat

It has been more than three years since this justice asked a question of a lawyer at the lectern. He attributes his silence to several factors, including his belief that the lawyers should be able to make their case largely without interruption. He told C-SPAN recently that he would rather have “coherence” than “50 questions in an hour.” Yet Thomas can sometimes be seen whispering and joshing with the justices on the right (Scalia) and left (Stephen Breyer) of him.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Style: Setting the record straight

If an attorney or fellow justice has misstated a fact or misapplied a past decision, she is all over it. Phrases like “as a factual matter” trip off her tongue. And if there is a hypothetical lawyer or judge in her question, this former women’s rights advocate uses the pronoun “she.” Her colleagues fall back on the more conventional, generic “he.”

Justice Stephen Breyer Style: Hydra-headed hypos

Breyer’s hypothetical questions have many facets and take several detours. This week, as he wandered through various scenarios in a case, he said, “This seems mixed up in my mind — not necessarily your fault — it may be my mind.” Breyer’s examples can be vivid, as when he asked whether a law banning videos of animal cruelty covered “stuffing geese for pâté de foie gras.” In an immigration case, Breyer used an example of a 90-year-old man facing deportation as “he ends up on a stretcher (because he) can no longer walk.” Down the row, the 89-year-old Stevens, still spry, listened intently.

Justice Samuel Alito Style: Bottom line

Like Kennedy, Alito is a serious sort who often asks questions that get at how a ruling might play out. “May I ask you what exactly you think needs to take place at this hearing?” Alito asked of a lawyer seeking a hearing for people whose cars, cash or other possessions were seized by police. Alito is also persistent. “That is not my question,” he said to an evasive attorney.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor Style: Rat-a-tat-fact

She shed the elaborate white lace collar she wore over her black robe for a swearing-in last month and, with it, any hesitation about leaping into the give-and-take with her veteran colleagues. Sotomayor has been quick and demanding. “I’m sorry,” she declared incredulously to a government lawyer arguing that police should be able to seize cash and cars possibly involved in a crime without an advance hearing. “You take the car and then you investigate?” She digs down into the facts. “Can I just get clarification?” she asked Wednesday, probing a final point in the last minutes of a lawyer’s case.

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