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Supreme Court justices reminisce about their Harvard days

(Left to right) Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy, John Roberts, and Stephen Breyer took part in a procession to mark Harvard Law School's bicentennial on Thursday.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE -- Justice Anthony M. Kennedy recalled being caught by the dean of Harvard Law School at a Red Sox game in 1960, the day before a major tax-law exam.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. fondly recalled making a pilgrimage almost every day to Baskin-Robbins in Harvard Square.

“Marshmallow sundae with chocolate chip ice cream,” the chief justice recalled. “It’s good.”

And retired Justice David H. Souter somewhat sheepishly acknowledged landing in the university health services offices after taking part in a mock sword duel during his second year of law school.

“It was a way to pass the time,” Souter said by way of explanation.


They were the kind of stories you might hear at any law school reunion, only the graduates who returned to Harvard on Thursday to reminisce about their student days all happened to be justices of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Five current and one former justice took part in the unusual public discussion at Sanders Theatre to mark the law school’s bicentennial.

Court observers said such a conversation among six justices was unprecedented in recent memory.

The discussion showcased the justices in a less formal and often jovial setting, as they laughed frequently and talked about their favorite professors and the challenges of serving on the nation’s highest court.

“Nothing prepares you for the Supreme Court,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer told the audience of students, professors, and alumni, recalling that Justice Harry Blackmun once told him, “You’re going to find this an unusual experience.”

The event didn’t touch on any cases currently before the court, President Trump, or other controversial topics.

Mostly, it was an opportunity for the justices to talk about the law, show a more personal side of themselves, and tout their alma mater. The justices marched together from the law school library to Sanders Theatre, surrounded by law school students snapping pictures on their phones.


Harvard Law School, founded in 1817, claims 20 graduates who have served on the high court — more than any other law school — plus three who attended but did not graduate: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Melville Fuller, and William Henry Moody.

Roberts, a 1979 graduate, said the school prizes the free exchange of ideas and intellectual humility, although he acknowledged humility is “perhaps not the first word you think about when you think about Harvard Law School.”

In a nostalgic mood, Kennedy recalled that when he was caught at the Red Sox game by the dean of the law school, Erwin Griswold, he had lugged the revenue code with him so he could study at Fenway Park.

Years later, when Griswold would bump into Kennedy in Washington, the dean would needle Kennedy by asking: “Do you still bring the revenue code to the baseball game?”

The law school dean, John F. Manning, asked the justices what careers they would have pursued if they weren’t judges.

Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, a Coloradoan and the court’s newest member, said he envies “fly-fishing guys and ski instructors.”

“And better yet, one who does one in the summer, and one in the winter,” he said.

Roberts said he would be “hounding President Faust” for a job as a professor of modern European history.

But, he conceded, that would not be “as much fun as fly fishing.”

Kennedy said he would teach English literature or political thought.


Justice Elena Kagan, a former law school dean, who was the clear crowd favorite, said she had considered becoming a history professor but decided to go to law school because it “seemed a much more practical route” than “sitting in the archives all day.”

Plus, she said, “there was a sense I wanted what I did to matter.”

Breyer didn’t answer the question directly, but said when he was 7, he wanted to be “a baseball player in the summer and drive a garbage truck in the winter.”

Breyer also recounted achieving the rank of Eagle Scout at age 12, which prompted Kennedy to ask, “Can you tie a knot?”

The justices also talked about formative jobs they had before joining the high court.

Kennedy remembered using a hammer to help build oil rigs in Canada and Louisiana and once becoming so nervous when the foreman came around, that he nailed his glove to the rig.

Roberts recalled, as he often does, that when young he was a member of the United Steelworkers union. Senior electricians, he said, liked to tell him to tighten bolts “that happened to be live” with electricity.

“It just never got old for them,” he said.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.