Alumni Argue Case before U.S. Supreme Court

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Duke Law graduates Rodney Smolla ’78 and Michael Dreeben ’81 represented opposing sides when the United States Supreme Court recently heard arguments concerning the constitutionality of a Virginia statute prohibiting cross burning.

Smolla, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, argued on behalf of two men convicted of violating the statute after two cross burning incidents in 1998. Dreeben appeared on behalf of the U.S. Office of the Solicitor General, which supported the Virginia law.

The Dec. 11 hearing became unusually emotional when Justice Clarence Thomas, normally the most reticent member of the court, described cross burning as forever associated with “100 years of lynching in the South” and the Ku Klux Klan's “reign of terror.”

In a subsequent interview with Connie Chung on CNN, Smolla said that Thomas's commentary was “one of the most striking moments I've seen in a Supreme Court argument and one of the most emotionally supercharged and intense moments I've experienced as a lawyer.” The court is expected to rule on the matter this spring.