NCAA en banc argument: only little surprises

I had the pleasure of attending this morning’s en banc oral argument in NCAA v. Governor of NJ. The ceremonial courtroom was packed, and even two of the judges who had recused were in the audience. Circuit advocacy (and circuit judging) is not often a big-crowds gig, so it was an entertaining spectacle.

Judge Ambro (presiding due to Chief Judge McKee’s recusal) opened with a heartfelt tribute to Justice Scalia, saying it was “so true” that he was “transformative” and describing him as “perhaps the greatest influential jurist of my generation.”

Here are a few things that surprised me:

  • Judge Barry missed participating by video feed due to technical difficulties, but at the last minute she was able to join in by audio;
  • Theodore Olson appeared to be reading his opening, word for word. Not just the opening sentence, but the whole first minute or two. (And later he declined to answer a judge’s direct question about what the recent troubles of daily-fantasy-sports betting meant for his position, saying he didn’t want to get into that.)
  • Paul Clement, who gave a virtuoso argument, leaned pretty heavily on legislative history. Heresy!

On a more substantive note, I was surprised that some of the court’s more conservative judges were the source of some of Olson’s toughest questions. I figured the court’s right was New Jersey’s best hope for getting towards the seven votes it needed to win, since a vote for New Jersey could be seen as a vote for state power and for business. But Judge Fisher was plainly dubious of Olson’s position, and Judges Hardiman and Jordan peppered him with tough questions, too.

But for all the little surprises, the bottom-line sense I got from today’s argument was not surprising. I came in doubting that New Jersey could find seven votes, and nothing that transpired during the argument reduced my doubt. We won’t know the result until the opinion(s) are issued, but Clement, the sports leagues, and the government have to feel pretty good about today.