Supreme Advice

Justice Scalia’s Guide to Winning


U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia tells USF law students their job is to make a complicated case look simple. Photo by Shawn Calhoun.

What’s the best way to persuade a judge? That’s what USF law students asked U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia during a USF visit on Jan. 31. His answer, appropriately, was a conservative one: Keep it simple.

“Your job is to make a complicated case look simple, not to make a simple case look complicated,” said Scalia, who joined the court in 1986, and is the current court’s longest serving justice.

Scalia and Bryan A. Garner delivered the keynote address at the 2014 USF Law Review Symposium in McLaren Conference Center. Garner is an expert on legal language and writing and co-wrote two books with Scalia.

For more than an hour, they showered the audience of eager students and San Francisco lawyers with tips on how to win their cases in court, including: know your case inside and out, understand its weaknesses, lead with your best argument, be willing to concede points that aren’t essential, and avoid jargon. 

Scalia also told lawyers in the crowd to leave their “Hollywood act” at home—no dramatic flourishes, no audible sighs, and no eyeglass waving just for effect—which he scolded as “childish.” And don’t even think about reading from your legal brief. “Not in my court!” he warned.

Scalia and Garner held a second event on campus the same evening to discuss and sign copies of their book, “Reading the Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts.” During the lively and laughter-filled event, the two traded friendly jabs at each other’s political leanings—Scalia is famously conservative and Garner is liberal. Scalia seemed to take special delight in Garner’s inability to pronounce certain legal terms in Latin—a difficulty Garner acknowledged. USF’s Center for Law and Ethics and the Bar Association of San Francisco sponsored the book discussion.

Law school Dean John Trasviña said he was thrilled with the positive feedback from Scalia’s visit, including a packed house of 400 at each event.


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