Supreme Court justices let down their robes at Harvard

Retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter, left, walks beside Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, center, as she and Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch share a laugh together during a procession to mark Harvard Law School's bicentennial in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 26, 2017.

Story highlights

  • The night was a combination of unlikely confessions and serious legal advice
  • It offered a rare glimpse of a branch of government that rarely lifts the veil behind the scenes

Cambridge, Massachusetts (CNN)Harvard Law School has produced 20 Supreme Court justices in its storied history and six of them traveled to Boston on Thursday for a lively and at times buoyant celebration.

It wasn't lost on Chief Justice John Roberts that a majority of the current court hails from one elite law school.
"A minority of my colleagues send their regrets," Roberts joked to the audience.
    The Chief was joined on stage by Justices Anthony Kennedy ('61), Stephen Breyer ('64), Elena Kagan ('86), Neil Gorsuch ('91) as well as retired Justice David Souter ('66).
    Between them, they have covered a four-decade span at the school and they had some stories to tell.
    The chief opened the event talking solemnly about the "full reservoir of mutual respect" on the current court.
    "It takes restraint to listen rather than speak, to consider rather than to dismiss," Roberts said. Then he sat down and the fun began.
    The night was a combination of unlikely confessions, serious legal advice and a rare glimpse of a branch of government that publishes pages of its work product but rarely lifts the veil behind the scenes.
    John F. Manning, the Dean of the School, posed questions to the group, and saved a lightning round for the end that featured everything from Gorsuch's revelation about a former pet goat named "Nibbles," to an unfortunate summer job when a youthful Justice Kennedy mistakenly nailed his work glove to a post.

    'We called him darkness at noon'

    Manning's first question concerned the first day of law school.
    "I was scared to death," Gorsuch allowed.
    Manning inquired how long the fear lasted.
    "I'll let you know," the junior-most justice -- who just completed the first sitting of his first full term -- said to laughter.
    Kagan nailed a second question about favorite professors.
    She pointed three seats down to Breyer, who apparently taught her antitrust.
    "My favorite," she glowed.
    Kennedy's memory wasn't as sunny.
    He recalled one of his professors who taught a class at 12 p.m.
    "We called him darkness at noon," Kennedy said.
    The next question concerned the professional experience that most prepared the justices for the Supreme Court.
    "Nothing prepares you for the Supreme Court" Breyer shot back. He said he remembered something that Justice Harry Blackmun once said: "You are going to find this an unusual assignment."
    But Breyer recalled his days working as an aide on Capitol Hill and a piece of advice from Sen. Ted Kennedy.
    The senator told Breyer: "do you want credit or do you want the result?" Breyer, who is known as a pragmatist on the bench, said the advice has stuck with him.
    Justice Anthony Kennedy, on the other hand, worked as a solo practitioner for a time in California. It taught him something he hasn't forgotten.
    "Behind every one of these cases there's a real person," he said.
    Kagan spoke about serving as the solicitor general -- the government's lawyer before the court -- just before she was nominated to the bench by President Barack Obama. "Sometimes, it seems as though all you did as solicitor general was try to figure out how to persuade nine justices of the court."
    "Now, I think about how to persuade eight justices," she said
    Manning's question caused Roberts to recall when he was a private lawyer arguing before the Supreme Court and sometimes going up against the government. The experience of knowing that "all I had to do was to convince five" justices made him truly understand the importance of the rule of law, he said.
    Gorsuch said one of the most important experiences of his professional life was clerking for Kennedy back in 1993.
    Gorsuch is the first former clerk to ever take the bench while his one-time boss, Kennedy, is still sitting.
    Kennedy waved off the compliment.
    "You didn't always do what I told you to do when you were my clerk -- you better start doing it," he said as the audience erupted.

    What else would you do with your life?

    The next question concerned what the justices would have done if they hadn't become justices.
    Gorsuch's answer seemed to take him back to Colorado. "I'd be one of those fly fishing guys," he said.
    Roberts, Kennedy and Kagan, no surprise, all said they'd have been teachers.
    Not Breyer. He knew what he wanted to do when he was seven years old. "I wanted to be a baseball player in the summer and drive a garbage truck in the winter," he said.
    Finally, the lightning round of questions.
    Kennedy revealed that he spent a period time in his youth working on oil rigs and once mistakenly nailed his glove to a wall.
    Souter, while at Harvard Law, engaged in a mock sword duel and ended up having to seek medical care.
    It was a way to pass time, he said.
    Gorsuch admitted that he once had a goat named "Nibbles" who was an "escape artist" who sometimes found his way into his family home. It turns out his children were avid participants in 4-H.
    After more than an hour, the justices stood to leave and presumably return to Washington.
    They are scheduled to hold their regular closed door conference on Friday. It's back to work.