"It's not big-time wining and dining, it's just being pleasant to people," said Albritton, who is semi-retired but previously served as chief judge in Alabama's middle district — a position that allowed him to meet several justices at conferences.
Justices are bombarded with speaking invitations, so Albritton tries to identify people who can help plead his case for an appearance. Those include Alabama alumni who are law clerks, former Supreme Court clerks who taught at the school, mutual friends and fellow judges.
Kennedy, the first justice to speak at Alabama in 1996 and now a potential swing vote as the court considers the constitutionality of the Obama administration's health care law, is a sports fan who had heard about Dreamland's famous ribs while watching college football games, Albritton said.
"He said, 'What would really add to the attraction for me to come is if you could tell me we'd go get ribs at Dreamland,'" Albritton recalled. "I told him, 'You can count on that.'"
Kennedy's official schedule, released through the records request, shows he ate at the dark, smoky restaurant during his visit in September 1996.
Justice Clarence Thomas, a huge sports fan who enjoys traveling in a recreational vehicle, attended an Alabama football game during one of two visits, Albritton said. After visiting an RV lot full of tailgaters, the justice walked to the stadium, chatting with a crimson-clad Alabama fan most of the way about NASCAR and the late Dale Earnhardt.
Records show Ginsburg, a fan of the arts, received the autographed copy of "To Kill a Mockingbird" during her visit.
The justice's speeches almost always get media coverage, and Chief Justice John Roberts sparked a news flurry during his talk in 2010 when, referring to President Barack Obama's state of the union address, he said the presidential appearances had degenerated into a "political pep rally." But records show the speech may not have ever happened without the intervention of U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a member of the Judiciary Committee that approved Roberts' nomination in 2005.
Albritton said he saw Sessions at a grocery store in Montgomery one night and asked him to prod the chief justice. Sessions agreed, and Roberts later wrote back to Sessions, saying: "I am already badly overcommitted for 2010, and am trying very hard to cut back on outside commitments. Nevertheless, given your longstanding support of the Judiciary — not to mention the consideration and courtesy that you have shown me personally — I find that I cannot decline."
Albritton said it's all about working connections, and that can include justices encouraging each other to make the trip south.
The conservative Thomas and former Justice David H. Souter are close friends despite being ideological opposites, Albritton said, and Thomas tried to talk Souter into speaking in Tuscaloosa. Even Thomas couldn't close that deal, he said.
"The only one I wasn't able to get is Souter, and he just doesn't do these things," Albritton said.
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