The late chief justice William Rehnquist was usually a stickler during Supreme Court oral arguments, cutting lawyers off in mid-syllable when the red light went on at the end of their allotted time. In his later years he'd occasionally ease up and let a lawyer go on for a few seconds if a barrage of questions from justices had dominated their rebuttal time, but usually Rehnquist was strict.
Much to the relief of advocates, John Roberts Jr. -- Rehnquist's successor and onetime law clerk -- has relaxed Rehnquist's standards. It's not uncommon for him to let lawyers finish their thoughts after the red light goes on, and he'll add extra rebuttal time if he feels it's needed for fairness. Roberts' different approach was on display this morning during the dense and complex arguments in Samantar v. Yousuf, which asks whether former officials of foreign governments are immune from lawsuits under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.
Patricia Millett of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld represented victims of torture in Somalia who were suing former Somali defense minister Mohamed Samantar. She was winding up a forceful finish when the red light at her lectern went on, signifying the end of her allotted 20 minutes. She kept talking and when she noticed the light, she said, "Forgive me." Roberts told her, "Finish your sentence." Fourteen lines -- and several sentences -- later, according to the transcript, Millett finished. Perhaps ruing his generosity, Roberts joked, "You made that a long sentence."
Next up, for 10 minutes, was Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler, representing the federal government. The veteran Kneedler, like Millett, got worked up by the issues raised in the case, and he too kept talking after his red light went on. Roberts did not interrupt him, and when Kneedler finally stopped, Roberts said, "Thank you Mr. Kneedler." Justice Antonin Scalia interjected, "There were a lot of long sentences in that."
As Jones Day lawyer Shay Dvoretzky, representing Samantar, rose to deliver his rebuttal, Robert told him, "Because of that, we'll give you five minutes." Even then, justices including Roberts kept asking questions until Dvoretzky, who was trying to be brief, was done. Sixty-six minutes or more after the hourlong argument began, the Court adjourned.