With the final arguments of the Supreme Court term completed on Wednesday, Georgetown Law on Thursday held its traditional reception to thank participants in its moot court program and to recognize a special guest.
The honoree this year was Jeffrey Minear, the counselor to Chief Justice John Roberts. And the reception brought together Roberts, Justice Elena Kagan, members of the U.S. solicitor general’s office, a couple of federal appeals court judges, and numerous specialists of the Supreme Court bar, not to mention invited law students and their more casually dressed classmates who slipped in to grab an hors d’oeuvre or a selfie with a justice.
Remarks at the event shed light on the wide range of non-judicial activities at the court, especially the many extra duties of the chief justice.
Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler noted some of these roles, including overseeing the Judicial Conference of the United States, serving on the board of regents and as chancellor of the Smithsonian Institution, and welcoming foreign judicial delegations.
Minear, who has been counselor to the chief justice since 2006, has been vital to helping Roberts fulfill those duties, Kneedler said, all the time displaying “great discretion and modesty.”
“He is, in short, a terrific ambassador of the court” to the bar and the public, Kneedler said.
Many people probably know little or nothing about Minear or his job, which is described in an act of Congress as “performing such duties as may be assigned to him by the chief justice,” Kneedler said.
When Roberts took the lectern, he added even more about the variety of tasks filled by his counselor. But that was only after the chief justice alluded to this week’s attention-getting development in the courtroom—the interruption of oral argument on Tuesday by the ringing of Justice Stephen Breyer’s digital device.
“First of all, I’d like to remind everyone to please turn off your cellphones,” Roberts said, drawing hearty laughs.
He then added to Kneedler’s description of Minear’s successful 21-year career in the solicitor general’s office, where Minear specialized in environmental, Indian, and original jurisdiction cases involving the states as parties, before taking the counselor’s job.
Roberts noted that he and Minear were once on opposite sides of an original jurisdiction case between Alaska and the United States that brought them together on a weeklong fact-finding mission on a fisheries boat in Glacier Bay, along with the case’s special master.
“You really do get to know someone well when you are in close quarters on a fisheries vessel for a week,” the chief justice said. Minear won the case, though Roberts noted that he was no longer involved as a lawyer representing Alaska by the time the case was argued and decided in the Supreme Court.
Roberts said Minear is charge of the court’s budget, has revitalized the Supreme Court Fellows program, and serves as a liaison to other branches of the government. The counselor had to lead the court through many planning issues after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, as well as, more recently, smoothing new Justice Neil Gorsuch’s arrival at the court.
Helping the chief justice with his Smithsonian responsibilities alone, Roberts said, is practically a full-time job.
And, “a week doesn’t go by when we don’t have a foreign delegation visiting the court, whether it is judicial or otherwise,” Roberts said. “The court really is a mecca for judiciaries around the world.”
(Just last week, several members of the European Court of Justice were in the audience for an oral argument.)
The chief justice concluded with another quip, saying Minear carries out all his duties while maintaining a focus on his main responsibility, “which is making sure that I get the credit.”
Minear is sometimes seen in the courtroom, taking in an oral argument. And TV viewers may have unknowingly caught a glimpse of him, because he typically accompanies the justices at State of the Union addresses and inaugurations (as do the marshal and clerk of the court).
But Minear himself seems fine with staying outside the spotlight. In brief remarks at the reception, he heaped praise on Georgetown’s Supreme Court Institute for helping improve arguments in the court itself. (The institute allows one side or the other in each of the granted cases to conduct moot court arguments before an experienced panel of lawyers.)
Minear lauded the specialty Supreme Court bar, and he drew attention to Roberts as someone whose kindness, decency and sense of humor Minear gets to experience closer than most.
The speakers had described Minear’s love of annual kayaking and camping trips to Alaska with his wife, Robin. (The institute presented him with a stuffed bear and a picture of Minear and Roberts, with a grizzly bear Photoshopped in the middle.)
Minear said that even though he and his wife often set ambitious distance goals for their kayaking trips, “one thing I have learned on these trips is it is always worthwhile to look back at where you came from.”
“That’s what I would encourage all of you to do,” he said. “Look back at how far we have all come along together in the past few decades. Some of you, just the past few years. It’s a great journey.”