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President Obama, Supreme Court Justices Head Back to Law School

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on April 12, 2016 12:58 PM

There's a long tradition of Supreme Court justices returning to law schools to talk about the law, spread some SCOTUS wisdom, and even delve into politics occasionally. But in the last few weeks of this very unusual Supreme Court term, it seems as though the justices are stopping by law schools more than ever. And they've got company, as President Obama returned last Thursday to speak at the University of Chicago Law School, where he taught for 12 years.

So, what did the justices and President Obama have to say?

The President Returns to Chicago, on a Mission

President Obama's visit to the University of Chicago Law School was the first time he'd been by as president. Obama spent a dozen years there, teaching constitutional law from 1992 to 2004, much of that time overlapping with his career in the Illinois Senate. (Only getting elected to the U.S. Senate was enough to tear Barack away from his teaching gig.)

And the reason for the president's return was clear: to advocate for Merrick Garland, his Supreme Court nominee. "One of the reasons I wanted to come back is to recruit you," he told Chicago's law students at the start of his hour-and-a-half session. "Those in the Senate have decided that placating our base is more important than upholding their constitutional and institutional roles in our democracy in a way that is dangerous," he said, according to The New York Times.

But, when it came to placating his own base, the President had a few other ideas. Discussing the desire to diversify the Court, Obama told the audience, "At no point did I say: 'I need a black lesbian from Skokie in that slot. Can you find me one? That's not how I approached it."

As for Merrick Garland, "Yeah, he's a white guy. But he's a really outstanding jurist. Sorry!"

The Supreme Court Justices: Keeping Mum

While the president politicked, the Supreme Court justices have stayed out of the fray. As the Washington Post reported on Sunday, the justices have been unanimous in withholding comment on Merrick Garland's nomination.

When Justice Sotomayor traveled to Santa Fe to speak at St. John's College last week, the audience was told not to ask about Garland or the nomination, according to the Post. When she stopped by Rutgers yesterday, Garland was similarly off the table.

Instead, at Rutgers, Justice Sotomayor's focus was the need for diversity on the court. "To be able to represent all of these people, it's helpful when the justices have present among themselves as much and as varied of experiences as the country does," she said, according to the Daily Targum. That allows for the "personal ability to explain an argument that your colleagues haven't had that your voice can let them see in a different way."

Like Justice Sotomayor, Justices Breyer and Alito have similar refused to discuss Garland's nomination. When asked at Georgetown Law School about the difficulties of operating with just eight justices, Justice Alito's response was, "We will deal with it."

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