Chief Justice Roberts has a well-deserved reputation as a stellar oral advocate. In Bryan Garner’s words, the oral arguments he gave during his days at Hogan were “generally breathakingly good.”
Or as Miguel Estrada once put it, the “G” in John G. Roberts stands for “God.”
In 2006 and 2007, Bryan Garner interviewed seven members of the current court, including the Chief, about a variety of topics. Video of the interviews has long been available on LawProse, but who has time to watch?
Fortunately, transcripts of the interviews appear in The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing. They are well worth a read.
As you might expect, Garner’s interview with JGR touched on Roberts’ legendary skills as an advocate.
They also discussed his preparation for oral argument. Roberts said that, “as a lawyer [before SCOTUS], you’ve got to be prepared to answer a thousand questions. You might get eighty, you might get a hundred, but you’ve got to be prepared to answer more than a thousand.”
How do you prepare to handle more than a thousand possible questions? A big part of that task involves figuring out how the different parts of your argument fit together, and working out how to move from one point to the next.
Here’s how Chief Justice Roberts perfected those skills:
I don’t care how complicated your case is; it usually reduces to at most four or five major points: here’s the key precedent, here’s the key language, here’s the key regulation, here are the key consequences. You have four or five points. It’s called A, B, C, D, and E. And when I’m practicing giving the argument, I’ll go through it, and then I’ll just shuffe those cards–A, B, C, D, and E–without knowing what they are. Then I’ll start again and I’ll look down. Okay, my first point is going to be C; and then from point C, I’m going to move to point E. and then from point E to point A. You develop practice on those transitions . . . because that’s how it always works, at any appellate court. You can’t guarantee the first question you’re going to get is going to be on your first point. It may be on your third point. Amd everyone has seen this, and it’s very awkward for somebody to say after they answer that third point, “And now I’d like to go back to the point I was making.” Well, okay, it’s not very smooth and you kind of lose a little bit of traction.
Roberts explains that his method teaches the advocate to make the necessary transitions, and to keep the presentation fluid. This, he says, “conveys a greater degree of confidence” in the presentation.
The Chief Justice shared another tip: Before an argument, he would find a layperson and try to explain, in five minutes, what the case was about and why he should win. If he couldn’t do that, then he wasn’t ready to argue.