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Third-year law student Rachel Wertheimer expected one of her professors or a guest lawyer to hear her argue for a hypothetical travel agency being sued by a Muslim man who claimed he had been wrongly fired because of his religion.
So she was stunned when Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts heard her case, giving her the full Supreme Court treatment, diving in with questions before she finished her first sentence.
"It was such a once-in-a-lifetime, amazing opportunity," Wertheimer said of the surprise appearance by Roberts, who was in Utah on Tuesday as the University of Utah College of Law's jurist-in-residence. "He asked amazing questions. They were really tough questions, but I thought he was very engaging. … It was intimidating when I got up, but he made me feel very comfortable up there."
The chief justice peppered the students with hypothetical scenarios and questions over 90 minutes to test the students' knowledge of the issues.
"It was very, very unexpected," said Melanie Grayson, a first-year law student. "When the bailiff stood up and read the chief justice's name and he walked into the room, I think we were all quite stunned."
Roberts' visit was kept under tight wraps, as the chief justice presided over the finals of the college's mock court competition along with Utah Chief Justice Christine Durham and federal appeals judge Scott Matheson Jr.
He also chose to spend about an hour discussing the role of courts and government with fifth- and sixth-graders from Rose Park Elementary School, part of the Kids Court education program.
"He just walked into the room and began conversing with the kids," said Reyes Aguilar, associate dean of the law school. The students asked why Roberts, who has two children about the same age as the students, wanted to study law and what he does in his spare time. One student grilled him on how many opinions the justice writes and how many pages each one ran.
"It's a big investment and an important public service beyond his formal role," said Hiram Chodosh, dean of the U. College of Law. "To be out in the country and have this kind of contact with students, to look at how they're doing in their most-competitive arenas, to field questions about the court in his role about what he thinks lawyers do. I think the chief, in addition to being a great chief justice, is a great educator."
Chodosh said the school had been working since 2007 to bring Roberts to the school.
Monday night, Roberts was honored at a dinner with the mock trial teams, a handful of faculty, Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and several state legislators who are lawyers.
The NCAA basketball championship game was on the television and Roberts, who is from Indiana the home of the losing Butler University checked the score throughout the night.
Roberts spoke only briefly to thank his hosts for the event, said Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City.
Shurtleff, who sat at the table with the chief justice, said Roberts was careful to avoid controversial, political topics, but spending two hours with the justice was "one of those bucket list things for me."