AP Enterprise: Alabama a top stop for justices

Apr 8, 2012, 9:06 PM

Associated Press

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) – The University of Alabama isn’t an Ivy League law school like Yale or Harvard, yet few colleges are better at luring U.S. Supreme Court justices as speakers: Every current justice has either addressed `Bama students or agreed to speak in coming years.

Documents obtained by The Associated Press through an open records request and interviews show what it takes to attract justices so far outside the confines of the Northeast.

Southern hospitality is part of it, along with payments meant as a show of gratitude and personal pleas from other judges, friends and the occasional U.S. senator. And there are added attractions that an Ivy League school may have a hard time matching, like spare ribs slathered with barbecue sauce, Crimson Tide football games and, in one case, a copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird” autographed by author Harper Lee.

Alabama’s law school _ which generally is ranked among the nation’s best _ has become a Deep South outpost for justices since the late 1990s, when U.S. District Judge W. Harold Albritton of Montgomery began pursuing justices to speak at his alma mater in a lecture series funded by his family.

The Albritton Lecture Series has featured 11 different speeches by 10 justices since Justice Anthony Kennedy first ate ribs at the famed Dreamland Bar-B-Que in 1996, and the chief justices of Australia, Canada and Israel also have spoken.

Besides the seven current court justices who have appeared, Albritton said Associate Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor have agreed to speak to students in coming years.

“It’s just a matter of scheduling the time,” Albritton said during an interview in his office in Montgomery.

The dean of Alabama’s law school, Kenneth Randall, said the justices’ talks are a favorite among students.

“Nothing excites the students more than the presence of a justice on the nation’s highest court being at the school,” he said.

To be sure, justices visit Harvard University more often than Alabama. A spokeswoman for the Harvard law school, Sarah Marston, said a justice presides over the school’s moot court finals each year, and justices have made at least one speech at the school for each of the past six or seven years. That includes Kagan and Justice Stephen Breyer, both former members of the Harvard law faculty.

Yet court officials say justices receive hundreds of speaking invitations each year, and Alabama gets its judge far more often than not.

Records obtained by the AP from the university and an interview with Albritton show the years of cajoling it sometimes takes to bring a justice to Alabama, whose most notable law graduates include the late Justice Hugo L. Black and four-term Gov. George C. Wallace.

The Albritton Fund, administered by the law school, pays the justices’ expenses and offers payments known as honoraria for the visit. Documents show Justice Antonin Scalia got a $4,500 check after appearing in 2009, and Thomas received $5,000 the same year. In 2005, for another appearance, the fund donated $2,000 to a New York convent in Thomas’ name.

Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor declined any payment, while the university donated $4,500 to four music and theater groups supported by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg after a speech in 2004. The fund donated $2,000 to then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s church in McLean, Va., after he spoke in 2003.

In Albritton’s view, money isn’t the key to appealing to the justices. Rather, he said, it’s the mix of Southern hospitality, a small-town pace and traits that make Tuscaloosa unique _ like college football games in a 101,000-seat stadium and famous barbecue.

“It’s not big-time wining and dining, it’s just being pleasant to people,” said Albritton, who is semi-retired but previously served as chief judge in Alabama’s middle district _ a position that allowed him to meet several justices at conferences.

Justices are bombarded with speaking invitations, so Albritton tries to identify people who can help plead his case for an appearance. Those include Alabama alumni who are law clerks, former Supreme Court clerks who taught at the school, mutual friends and fellow judges.

Kennedy, the first justice to speak at Alabama in 1996 and now a potential swing vote as the court considers the constitutionality of the Obama administration’s health care law, is a sports fan who had heard about Dreamland’s famous ribs while watching college football games, Albritton said.

“He said, `What would really add to the attraction for me to come is if you could tell me we’d go get ribs at Dreamland,'” Albritton recalled. “I told him, `You can count on that.'”

Kennedy’s official schedule, released through the records request, shows he ate at the dark, smoky restaurant during his visit in September 1996.

Justice Clarence Thomas, a huge sports fan who enjoys traveling in a recreational vehicle, attended an Alabama football game during one of two visits, Albritton said. After visiting an RV lot full of tailgaters, the justice walked to the stadium, chatting with a crimson-clad Alabama fan most of the way about NASCAR and the late Dale Earnhardt.

Records show Ginsburg, a fan of the arts, received the autographed copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird” during her visit.

The justice’s speeches almost always get media coverage, and Chief Justice John Roberts sparked a news flurry during his talk in 2010 when, referring to President Barack Obama’s state of the union address, he said the presidential appearances had degenerated into a “political pep rally.” But records show the speech may not have ever happened without the intervention of U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a member of the Judiciary Committee that approved Roberts’ nomination in 2005.

Albritton said he saw Sessions at a grocery store in Montgomery one night and asked him to prod the chief justice. Sessions agreed, and Roberts later wrote back to Sessions, saying: “I am already badly overcommitted for 2010, and am trying very hard to cut back on outside commitments. Nevertheless, given your longstanding support of the Judiciary _ not to mention the consideration and courtesy that you have shown me personally _ I find that I cannot decline.”

Albritton said it’s all about working connections, and that can include justices encouraging each other to make the trip south.

The conservative Thomas and former Justice David H. Souter are close friends despite being ideological opposites, Albritton said, and Thomas tried to talk Souter into speaking in Tuscaloosa. Even Thomas couldn’t close that deal, he said.

“The only one I wasn’t able to get is Souter, and he just doesn’t do these things,” Albritton said.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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AP Enterprise: Alabama a top stop for justices