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AP Enterprise: Alabama a top stop for justices

By Jay Reeves

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, April 8 2012 3:10 p.m. MDT

In this April 4, 2012 photo, U.S. District Judge W. Harold Albritton speaks to the media in his Montgomery, Ala., office. Alabama's law school _ which generally is ranked among the nation's best _ has become a Deep South outpost for justices since the late 1990s, when Albritton began pursuing justices to speak at his alma mater in a lecture series funded by his family. The Albritton Lecture Series has featured 11 different speeches by 10 justices since Justice Anthony Kennedy first ate ribs at famed Dreamland Bar-B-Que in 1996, and the chief justices of Australia, Canada and Israel also have spoken.

Dave Martin, Associated Press

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The University of Alabama isn't an Ivy League law school like Yale or Harvard, yet few colleges are better at luring U.S. Supreme Court justices as speakers: Every current justice has either addressed 'Bama students or agreed to speak in coming years.

Documents obtained by The Associated Press through an open records request and interviews show what it takes to attract justices so far outside the confines of the Northeast.

Southern hospitality is part of it, along with payments meant as a show of gratitude and personal pleas from other judges, friends and the occasional U.S. senator. And there are added attractions that an Ivy League school may have a hard time matching, like spare ribs slathered with barbecue sauce, Crimson Tide football games and, in one case, a copy of "To Kill a Mockingbird" autographed by author Harper Lee.

Alabama's law school — which generally is ranked among the nation's best — has become a Deep South outpost for justices since the late 1990s, when U.S. District Judge W. Harold Albritton of Montgomery began pursuing justices to speak at his alma mater in a lecture series funded by his family.

The Albritton Lecture Series has featured 11 different speeches by 10 justices since Justice Anthony Kennedy first ate ribs at the famed Dreamland Bar-B-Que in 1996, and the chief justices of Australia, Canada and Israel also have spoken.

Besides the seven current court justices who have appeared, Albritton said Associate Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor have agreed to speak to students in coming years.

"It's just a matter of scheduling the time," Albritton said during an interview in his office in Montgomery.

The dean of Alabama's law school, Kenneth Randall, said the justices' talks are a favorite among students.

"Nothing excites the students more than the presence of a justice on the nation's highest court being at the school," he said.

To be sure, justices visit Harvard University more often than Alabama. A spokeswoman for the Harvard law school, Sarah Marston, said a justice presides over the school's moot court finals each year, and justices have made at least one speech at the school for each of the past six or seven years. That includes Kagan and Justice Stephen Breyer, both former members of the Harvard law faculty.

Yet court officials say justices receive hundreds of speaking invitations each year, and Alabama gets its judge far more often than not.

Records obtained by the AP from the university and an interview with Albritton show the years of cajoling it sometimes takes to bring a justice to Alabama, whose most notable law graduates include the late Justice Hugo L. Black and four-term Gov. George C. Wallace.

The Albritton Fund, administered by the law school, pays the justices' expenses and offers payments known as honoraria for the visit. Documents show Justice Antonin Scalia got a $4,500 check after appearing in 2009, and Thomas received $5,000 the same year. In 2005, for another appearance, the fund donated $2,000 to a New York convent in Thomas' name.

Former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor declined any payment, while the university donated $4,500 to four music and theater groups supported by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg after a speech in 2004. The fund donated $2,000 to then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist's church in McLean, Va., after he spoke in 2003.

In Albritton's view, money isn't the key to appealing to the justices. Rather, he said, it's the mix of Southern hospitality, a small-town pace and traits that make Tuscaloosa unique — like college football games in a 101,000-seat stadium and famous barbecue.

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