From left to right: Michael J. Pelletier, J. Timothy Eaton and Michael A. Scodro
Even the most veteran appellate attorneys admit they can't find a way to stifle the anxiety that sets in before an Illinois Supreme Court case.
"I think if ever a lawyer is not nervous before they make an argument, then they should probably retire," said J. Timothy Eaton, a partner at Shefsky & Froelich Ltd., who presented his first high court case in 1982.
Arguing before the state's high court always generates fretfulness and unease, attorneys said. It also can produce some rather unexpected occurrences.
Michael A. Scodro, the state's solicitor general, said his first oral argument produced a memorable, and certainly surprising, moment.
The case involved debate over whether federal railroad legislation pre-empted a local regulation. Coincidentally, the Supreme Court building at 200 E. Capitol Ave. stands just a block away from a set of train tracks.
Sure enough, soon after Scodro began his remarks, a train rumbled past, blaring its horn. The remarkable timing sparked laughter from everyone in the courtroom, he said, even the justices.
"I found it nice to have a little mood-lightener," he said. "Especially for my first argument."
Despite its proximity to the rail line, attorneys said the high court building carries a great mystique.
From the towering columns at the front entrance to the courtroom's ornate walnut and marble, the facility inspires awe even in attorneys practicing for decades.
"When you walk into that room, you know it's special," said Jeffery J. Tomczak, a former Will County state's attorney who argued his first case before the court in March. "You can feel it. You pull up to the building and you feel the same way."
The importance of each case never strays from an advocate's mind, attorneys said. Presenting to the court that shapes the interpretation and use of state law, they said, brings enormous pressure.
No matter how much work goes into a brief or argument, it never feels like enough, said Michael T. Reagan, who argued his first case in the high court in 1986.
"I'm always still preparing, either in the library at the end of the hall or even in the seats in the back of the courtroom," he said. "I'm tinkering with my outline and trying to relearn or brush up on the facts even some more. It's excruciating, in that sense."
While each case bears some significance to the law — otherwise the court wouldn't accept the appeal — attorneys admit they know their argument may not always hold a place in the spotlight.
Robert G. Black, an appellate attorney arguing in the high court since the early 1990s, said he can't forget the events of a procedural case he handled — a relevant legal issue, but not one that would ever capture public attention.
Black arrived in court that day to find former Gov. James R. Thompson, now a senior chairman and partner at Winston & Strawn LLP, set to argue the case after his.
Seeing the high-profile politician sitting behind the attorney's table with an entourage of colleagues came as quite a surprise, he said.
"You have to really work to maintain your focus," he said. "Nobody was there to see my procedural case, that's for sure. They were all there for the one right after me."
Controlling nerves remains a critical part of delivering a successful oral argument, attorneys said.
Michael J. Pelletier, the state appellate defender, said he found confidence to be a key to tamping down any jitters, inevitable as they may be.
"Your adrenaline's flowing," he said. "I would always give myself a pep talk, realizing the court's preparing for five or six arguments that day, and I'm only preparing for one. And I'm the best-prepared individual in that room."
Experience, though, can even be a bad thing.
David Iskowich, an assistant attorney general who argued about 20 cases in the high court, said he sometimes gets even more nervous now than he did as a newly minted lawyer.
Perhaps, he said, that comes from observing a host of oral arguments and knowing where attorneys can get tripped up.
"I'm a little more experienced and I can see where things go wrong now," he said. "I've become better at seeing weaknesses in a case and it feels like I have a lot more to worry about now."