Roberts' N.C. Central visit to be low-key

Staff WriterApril 14, 2009 

— Presidents and politicians come to town amid great fanfare.

But when the nation's top judicial officer visits a local campus? Not so much.

John G. Roberts Jr., chief justice of the United States, will visit N.C. Central University's law school today. He will slip into town quietly, avoid the limelight and the cameras, and spend most of his time not before a crowd but with small groups of students and lawyers. His schedule will be tightly controlled, and the media - aside from one campus newspaper reporter - won't be allowed in.

But for students, the visit is a rare opportunity. Roberts is on campus to preside over the school's moot court competition. Once done with that, he will take a stroll around the school.

"He'll walk around the law school and make a few pop-in visits," said Raymond Pierce, the school's dean. "We don't even know what classroom he'll walk into."

Roberts, who joined the nation's high court as its chief justice in 2005, visits just a handful of law schools each year. Two years ago, Pierce met him at a judicial conference in West Virginia and asked him to speak at NCCU.

Roberts told Pierce that he doesn't usually give speeches but he'd preside over a moot court competition - in which teams of law students argue a case on appeal to a panel of judges.

"I looked to the people standing around and said 'you heard that, didn't you?'" Pierce recounted.

Roberts will meet with students, preside over the competition and hold a U.S. Supreme Court Bar swearing-in ceremony for about 20 NCCU law alums, said Pierce, who doled out most of the 120 seats in the NCCU courtroom to students through a lottery, leaving plenty of alums and professors alike disappointed.

The U.S. Supreme Court will provide Roberts' security. Kathy Arberg, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Supreme Court, declined to discuss specifics.

NCCU is imposing the media ban for the moot court exercise, an attempt to keep the courtroom environment as normal as possible, said Delores James, the law school's development director.

Roberts customarily meets with students privately, Arberg said.

Roberts visits about six or seven law schools a year, often to preside over moot court competitions and occasionally for other reasons, Arberg said.

He does not get paid for his appearances, and NCCU is paying his lodging and travel expenses using money donated by the Raleigh-based John William Pope Foundation.

Roberts, who will follow his NCCU visit with a trip to the University of Louisville later this week, does try to spend most of his campus time interacting with students, Arberg said.

Roberts' visit is a coup for this small but well-regarded law school stuck between Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill, two institutions with law schools boasting larger reach and profile. Duke has hosted U.S. Supreme Court justices at least a handful of times, and two chief justices have spoken on campus, William Rehnquist in 2002 and Earl Warren in 1963.

In the last decade, UNC-CH has hosted associate justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Sandra Day O'Connor.

NCCU has hosted just one in its history, associate justice Potter Stewart in 1980.

If the six NCCU students chosen for the moot court competition today never argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court during their careers, they can at least say they took legal fire from the nation's chief justice. Roberts will be joined on the panel by Allyson Duncan, a former NCCU law professor who sits on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, and Henry Frye, a former member of the North Carolina Supreme Court.

"It's really a grilling," Pierce said. "It's an intense questioning by the judges."

Dominique Williams, a third-year law student, is one of NCCU's six participants in a case involving whether the government should be allowed to medicate a man in order for him to be considered competent and able to stand trial.

"We all have put in long nights and endless days," he said. "It's a great honor, so we've prepared very hard to make the university proud."

Bryan Nye was a second-year law student at the University of Kansas last year when Roberts presided over his moot court competition there.

Nye was wound pretty tight until he attended a question-and-answer session with Roberts before the competition. Seeing Roberts in person, joking and approachable, put him at ease.

"If you get to hear him speak, you'll realize he's brilliant, but also, he's very personable," Nye recounted recently by phone from his home in Kansas. "He's not out to get you as a law student."

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2008

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