In a message that might have been aimed at some of today’s issue-distorting politicians, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito said in Columbia on Thursday that society would benefit if more citizens learned to “think like a lawyer.”
Speaking at the dedication of the new $80 million University of South Carolina School of Law, Alito told some 400 lawyers, alumni, politicians, university and other officials that even though some people might liken a school that turns out lawyers to “a new marsh for the breeding of mosquitoes,” lawyers’ values are vital to democracy.
“Thinking like a lawyer is good for our society at large,” said Alito, and “perhaps most important at the present time” is to have the ability hear all sides of a controversy before making a judgment.
“Experienced attorneys and judges can always recall instances in which their initial take on a question of fact or the law turned out to be incorrect after both sides were presented,” Alito said.
“Hearing from both sides is the best way to find the truth, and it also expresses respect for the inherent dignity of all our fellow citizens,” Alito said.
The 67-year-old justice also said that thinking like a lawyer means being grounded in facts, having humility when you take a position and being mindful of the past.
“Our legal system does not worship the past, but it also does not disregard the past. It strikes a balance,” Alito said.
Underscoring the importance that free speech, even offensive speech, plays in our society and its role in the search for truth, Alito told the audience that in America, “speech cannot be regulated based on the viewpoint it expresses. ... This is one of the great ideals of our Constitution and our legal system.”
As is customary with judges and justices speaking in public, Alito avoided direct mention of specific politicians or issues in his 26-minute, open-air speech in the law school’s expansive front courtyard.
Alito, one of the court’s most conservative justices, said he had been invited to speak by Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Jean Toal, former chief justice of the S.C. Supreme Court, said after the ceremony she liked what Alito had to say. “It was a remarkable articulation of it means to think like a lawyer – adherence to facts, the objectivity, the fairness, the openness – he spoke to all those things. I was very inspired by what he had to say.”
The program included remarks by USC President Harris Pastides, Law School Dean Robert Wilcox, S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty, Gov. Henry McMaster, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and William Hubbard, past American Bar Association president and USC board member.
In his remarks, an obviously happy Wilcox went on for more than 10 minutes, naming many of the dozens and dozens of university officials, lawyers, donors, fund-raisers, politicians and others who since 1998 had labored to make the new law school a reality.
Alito, who graduated from Princeton and Yale Law School, has served on the high court since 2006. He was nominated by President George W. Bush to fill a seat vacated by Sandra Day O’Connor.
Another Supreme Court justice, Sonia Sotomayor, spoke Thursday morning at Clemson University.