The Supreme Experience
March 13, 2020 § 5 Comments
Last week, if you checked in on this blog, you were greeted by a cryptic message that I was “out a few days.” I took that time to meet up with my daughter Aimée, who lives in Maryland and works in D.C., for us to attend a session of the US Supreme Court.
Some of you have argued cases before that court, and some may have sat in on argument. I had done neither, so when she suggested we do that, I agreed readily.
On Monday, March 2, we set out early for the Capital. Aimée had learned from a frequent visitor to the court that we needed to get there early. We got in line at 7:00, a.m. Court did not start until 10, but we were already at the end of the block in a line that kept building behind us. Some people at the head of the line had slept there in sleeping bags. We found out later that we were number 78 and 79 in the line. The recurring topic among line-standers was whether we would get in to hear an entire case, or whether we would be shunted to the 3-5 minute line, in which visitors are whisked in, allowed to stand and gawk for 3-5 minutes, and then ushered out to make room for the next group.
Before going on, I need to note that the temperature was in the low 40’s with a 20-mph wind. I was glad to have worn my wool sweater and wool car-coat. Some unfortunates in line had apparently paid more attention to the forecast predicting 60’s by 2:00 that afternoon, and were comparatively — and uncomfortably — undressed for that early morning weather.
Around 8:30, the first 50 in line were taken up on the plaza in front of the building and issued gold-colored tickets. Again, we speculated whether those were the ones who would get to see the main show while we would get a revolving-door peek.
About this time an officer came to police the line and proclaimed that “Everyone here for Wednesday’s case needs to move here.” That’s when we learned that the folks in the sleeping bags had been there since Saturday holding place in line for Wednesday’s case, which involved a challenge to Louisiana’s abortion law. They would sleep over until they got their golden ticket to the Wednesday session, which they would then sell to a pre-arranged buyer who would walk up and take their place in line.
Around 9 we were called up onto the plaza and stood there waiting. An officer explained that they were deciding how much room they had for our group, which by then had grown. We wondered whether we would get to hear even one case.
Around 9:45, an officer began handing golden tickets out to our group, and we were directed to a basement door, through airport-type metal detectors, and lined up on stairs, where we were instructed on court-room etiquette (no cheering, no demonstrations, no speaking, no nonsense) and as to what items were permissible in the court room. Essentially, all you can take in is a pen or pencil and pad of paper. No cell phones, no jackets or coats, no metal of any kind, nothing that can beep — not even an Apple Watch. Then we were loosed on some lockers and coat check area to stow our stuff. From there we went through another metal detector and lined up at the entrance to the court room where we learned for the first time that we were definitely getting to stay for either or both cases set for hearing that morning. An attendant came and collected our gold tickets which would have made great mementos.
And then we were led by an attendant into a vestibule, around a corner, and into the court room at 10:20. We had missed the opening of court, and arguments were in progress. This was the first of two immigration cases to be argued today.
Seated behind the long bench were the nine Justices. From left to right: Gorsuch, Sotomayor, Breyer, Thomas, Roberts, Ginsburg, Alito, Kagan, and Kavanaugh. Immediately in front of them, across from Roberts, close enough for Roberts to hit him with a well-aimed spitball, was a podium where stood counsel for the appellant arguing as best he could among a continuous barrage of questions. In the span of the two cases every Justice but Thomas asked at least one question. Breyer was the most prolific questioner. At one point Sotomayor had to tell the lawyer to quit interrupting her, something none of the lawyers had the nerve to ask the Justices to do.
The lawyers sat at tables behind the podium. Behind and around them were members of the SCOTUS bar. Behind them was a bronze railing set before the general admission area. We were in the third row, in the left section of three sections of long, solid, cushioned pews, 15 in all. A chair was placed at the end of each pew for additional seating, and it appeared that every seat was taken. A guard in a black suit stood facing the onlookers, scanning the crowd repeatedly from one side to the other. Another guard spelled him after a half hour, and they alternated that way for the duration.
The crowd was attentive and quiet. Both cases involved technical interpretation of statutes and the first case even touched on the interplay between habeas corpus and deportation hearings, a dimension that both liberal and conservative justices appeared to latch onto in support of their positions. And yet, for all of its dry technicality, I found the audience intent on trying to follow the argument, rapt even.
When the first case concluded, Roberts simply said, “Case is submitted,” and the attorneys for the next case took the places of those from the first case. Roberts nodded and they commenced their argument.
What struck me was the simplicity and practicality of the proceeding. It was at its heart not much different from a motion hearing one might stumble into in a rural courthouse. Not a bunch of pomp and circumstance or pretension, just lawyers arguing their positions, judges hearing them out and having the lawyers answer the questions they need to have answered before they can make up their minds. Yes, it is the highest court in the land, but it is, after all, just a court doing court business the same as is done thousands of times every day in every county in every state.
That is the majesty of the law in our nation, where the law is sovereign. It does not need external trappings or ritual to lend it gravity and power. Its authority is bestowed on it by our Constitution and by case law. It is paramount in the most modest, rustic courtroom, the same as it is in the United States Supreme Court, and in the very same way in each place.