My trip inside the U.S. Supreme Court

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

When I found out my wife was go­ing to run a marathon in Wash­ing­ton D.C., I was thrilled. As a lawyer in Tulsa, Okla., I fol­low the U.S. Supreme Court re­li­giously — I lis­ten to prac­ti­cally ev­ery oral ar­gu­ment in my car; I read all the opin­ions on crim­i­nal and con­sti­tu­tional mat­ters. If a case par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ests me, I will read all the briefs in that case, in­clud­ing each am­i­cus brief, as well as the opin­ions of the lower court. Head­ing to D.C., I felt like I was on a pil­grim­age.

Al­though oral ar­gu­ments are not video recorded, mem­bers of the pub­lic can watch them in per­son, to­tally for free, at least mon­e­tar­ily. Of course, there is lim­ited oc­cu­pancy. Ac­cess is granted on a first­come, first-served ba­sis. If you show up to the Supreme Court be­fore ar­gu­ments and you fall within the first 50 peo­ple in line, then you get to come inside and watch pro­ceed­ings for the day. Know­ing this, I picked a bor­ing lineup of cases to watch: two con­tract cases that in­volved dis­putes sur­round­ing the Fed­eral Ar­bi­tra­tion Act.

We ar­rived at the Court at 5:45 a.m. Walk­ing up, we no­ticed an in­cred­i­ble line — 50 lawyers from China who trav­eled to­gether, lined up in the front of the line, fol­lowed by about 20 more peo­ple. I had sorely mis­cal­cu­lated my chances. We felt like the Gris­wolds when they ar­rived at a closed-for-main­te­nance Wal­ley World in “Na­tional Lam­poon’s Va­ca­tion.” The group from China had ar­rived at 2 a.m. They were the only mem­bers of the pub­lic al­lowed in. I moved on, ques­tion­ing how early I needed to show up the next day — or, since the next day had a more in­ter­est­ing lineup of cases, I won­dered: Do I need to show up that same evening? I started feel­ing like I would not lay eyes on the nine jus­tices who heav­ily in­flu­ence our coun­try’s fu­ture.

The next morn­ing I woke up at 3:30 a.m. — I did not shower, I did not shave. I threw on khakis and two jack­ets, snagged an Uber and got to the court at 3:45 a.m. My wife came with me as moral sup­port. When we ar­rived, we were fifth and sixth in line. The group who pre­ceded us in line were po­lit­i­cal science un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents.

We felt like we were wait­ing for a rock con­cert. The un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents spoke ex­cit­edly about see­ing Jus­tice Ruth Gins­burg. They won­dered what it would be like to say “hello” to her or to get her cof­fee or to bump into her by ac­ci­dent. The line steadily ac­cu­mu­lated be­hind us. Ev­ery five to 10 min­utes an Uber or a Lyft would ferry some­one to the court. Be­fore sun­rise, the line num­bered well over 50 peo­ple. We waited un­til 7:30 a.m. to en­ter the build­ing. Once inside, we waited un­til 10 a.m. — more than six hours since I ar­rived — for oral ar­gu­ments.

It was a sur­real ex­pe­ri­ence inside the court. Jus­tice Clarence Thomas rou­tinely leaned back and stared at the ceil­ing. Oc­ca­sion­ally the jus­tices would whis­per to each other while the lawyers ar­gued their po­si­tions. Many of the jus­tices have aged sig­nif­i­cantly from the im­age in my mind. At times, I could not tell if Jus­tice Gins­burg was awake or read­ing — al­most the en­tire time she looked straight down, where the au­di­ence could only see her hair and her shoul­ders. When she spoke, it was some­times not dis­cernible if she was ask­ing a ques­tion or mak­ing a state­ment.

At the same time, it was a very pre­dictable ex­pe­ri­ence. Jus­tice Stephen Breyer asked ex­cep­tion­ally hard ques­tions that cut straight to the core of the dis­pute. Jus­tice Elena Ka­gan posed prob­ing, clear hy­po­thet­i­cals. Jus­tice Thomas asked noth­ing.

I watched es­pe­cially close the two new­com­ers, Jus­tices Neil Gor­such and Brett Ka­vanaugh. At some point, Jus­tice Breyer asked a ques­tion that made me burst into laugh­ter. Jus­tice Ka­vanaugh laughed as well, and for a sec­ond it ap­peared that he was laugh­ing with me while he looked in my di­rec­tion.

Af­ter­ward, I felt like I had shared an ex­pe­ri­ence with strangers that could never be re­vis­ited. In an age where chil­dren can film them­selves eat­ing break­fast, the ex­pe­ri­ence felt pow­er­ful but fleet­ing. This was the one event for which I could not share a link with my friends to show them ex­actly what I saw. De­spite that, the court will rule on these cases, and these opin­ions will guide ev­ery lower court in this na­tion for years to come. Those last­ing, far-reach­ing con­se­quences are ex­actly why I would stand with strangers in the cold at 4 a.m. all over again. Kevin Keller is a lawyer in Ok­la­homa; his email is [email protected]

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