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Field trips to our nation’s capital aren’t just for high school civics classes. Sometimes state superior court judges get to take them, too. That is, if they are lucky enough to be in the seminar offered by Jessica Smith, W. R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Government at the School of Government. And those fortunate 18 judges not only got to observe the U.S. Supreme Court in action, they also got to meet Justice Antonin Scalia.

The January seminar – the first ever for the judges – took place in the midst of this winter’s storm(s) of the century, but the planning for it started last summer. Smith met Scalia at a bar association event in North Carolina. While most folks were focused on getting their pictures snapped with Scalia, Smith used her time to tell him about her work with the judges. She expressed a longstanding desire to offer a Supreme Court seminar for some of the state’s more senior trial judges, and Justice Scalia graciously offered to host Smith and a group of judges at the court. Smith then coordinated with Scalia’s assistant to schedule the event and added on a morning of educational sessions at the National Center for State Courts in Arlington, Va.

The judges had to apply to go on the trip. Preference was given to unpaid service on behalf of the N.C. Conference of Superior Court judges, the organization that split the cost of the trip with the School of Government’s Judicial College. The judges paid their own travel expenses.

At the time of the trip, the wintry weather kept one judge from attending. The snow also shut down the federal government. But the Supreme Court was still in session, hearing oral arguments for two cases. It was also, coincidentally, the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision, so the judges passed by protesters who packed First Street in front of the building.

For most of the participants, it was their first visit to the Supreme Court. “The aura created by being in the same room with the smartest judges in the land was awe-inspiring,” said Judge W. Allen Cobb Jr. of the Judicial District 5 (New Hanover and Pender counties).

Judge Richard Doughton of Judicial District 23 (Alleghany, Ashe, Wilkes and Yadkin counties) for one was impressed by the “very strict decorum” observed in the court. “We could use a little more of that in our state courts,” he said.

After the morning session, Smith and the judges met with Justice Scalia in the historic East Conference Room. Justice Scalia came with no prepared remarks and simply opened the floor for questions. Smith later blogged about the give and take between the judges and the justice, noting in part that:

… One of the judges “engaged” Justice Scalia about the role of judges in interpreting the Constitution. Scalia’s response was exactly as expected: It’s arrogant for judges to think that they know better than the elected representatives of the people and to think that they can disregard the will of the people and impose their own view of what the Constitution ought to mean. …

In what’s familiar ground in many of his talks, we ended with Justice Scalia’s thoughts on the real constitution. As he has done before, he articulated the view that it’s not the Bill of Rights that makes us free. “Every banana republic has a bill of rights,” he explained. That’s just paper. The real constitution, he emphasized—the real protection of our freedoms—is our constitutional structure that prevents the centralization of power, including an independent judiciary, a bicameral legislature, and a separately elected President.

The private audience with Scalia may have been the highlight of the trip, but the judges also squeezed in sightseeing that afternoon and attended three sessions at the National Center for State Courts the following day.

“It was one of the best things I’ve attended,” Doughton said. “I couldn’t have enjoyed it any more.”

Cobb agreed. “It was a great trip, led by a great professor,” he said.

Smith said she was thrilled to have been able to offer a seminar to the judges that exposed them to events and people that shape the larger legal system. “My hope is that doing so is rejuvenating for them,” she said. “I also hope that it inspires them to be even better than they already are at ensuring that justice is done in our North Carolina courts.”

By Susan Hudson, UNC News Services

Published March 18, 2014