Today is a momentous day in the life of American lawyers and law students. Specifically, it is the first Monday in October, the day the United States Supreme Court officially opens its 2011-2012 term. American law students are taught to await this day with bated breath. They watch the Court's docket closely for signs of important decisions that will affect American legal life. Lawyers hope their petitions to be heard will be granted. The granting of a petition for certiorari, the traditional route to having one's case heard by the Court, is a rare and exciting thing. I have a petition or two pending before the Court as I write this, but I have no illusions that my little case will be deemed important enough to be heard by the Nine. Nevertheless, I can hope.
The Supreme Court has always been a revered institution in American life. The judges are supposed to be immune from the political process; they are appointed for life by the President, with the approval of the Senate, and they frequently veer off in ideological directions that surprise the Presidents who appointed them. (President Eisenhower was famous for saying that he had made two mistakes during his presidency, and they were both sitting on the Supreme Court.) The Justices have the power to change American life in an instant. They have stunned the nation by issuing decrees that we now take for granted: eliminating school segregation based on race, legalizing interracial marriage, affirming a married couple's right to use birth control, and protecting a woman's right to decide whether to continue a problem pregnancy. All these issues were once touchy but are now settled (with the possible exception of the abortion issue, which continues to teeter back and forth in the national discussion).
I was in high school when President Reagan nominated the first woman justice to the Supreme Court. I was a law student when Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court but Robert Bork was not. I was a young lawyer when a few well-respected women jurists were disqualified from Supreme Court service, not because of their professional qualifications or political views, but because of their childcare arrangements. I remember all these events well. I sat for hours in front of the television watching the confirmation hearings. For a young woman interested in the law, and in the careers available to intelligent female lawyers, these were all formative events.
And so, despite my lost faith in the myth of the nonpolitical Court, I cannot help but feel a frisson of excitement on this first chilly Monday in the fall. Today brings with it the possibility of change and the hope of intelligent discussion about real issues that could affect all our lives. I raise my cup of coffee to the First Monday.