SCOTUS, Supreme Court

First One @ One First’s Guide to SCOTUS Seats, Part I: When to Arrive?

mike sacks first one.jpgMy name is Mike Sacks. I am a 3L at Georgetown and creator of First One @ One First, where I write about my adventures from the front of the general admission line for the Supreme Court’s oral arguments in cases of public interest and political salience. After the New York Times covered my exploits in the McDonald v. City of Chicago line last week, Above the Law honored me as its Law Student of the Day.

And then Kash took advantage of me.

She approached me at my most vulnerable moment, fatigued from my twenty-six hour Court campout and under deadline for an argument write-up with the ABA Journal, and asked me to provide a “tutorial for how to score a seat for a SCOTUS argument.”

In other words, she requested that I exchange my very closely kept trade secrets for thousands of hits at F1@1F and a slew of trolls below this post.

I needed clarity–a bright moral line–to cut through my sleepless haze and save my principles from ATL’s temptation. I needed Justice Scalia.

But Justice Scalia, only hours before, killed his credibility when he openly embraced “substantive due process,” the living constitutionalists’ darling device for abortion- and gay-rights, rather than face the liberal consequences of an originalist reading of a resurrected Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

That sealed it. If Scalia could imperil his legacy for the sake of convenient results, then so could I.

Friends, click over to my blog’s “mission statement” and read from there. Trolls, flame away down below. And Gunners, get your sleeping bags ready: here’s how to be the First One @ One First.

There is not one uniform arrival time at the Supreme Court Side Walk that will secure you the number one spot. The trick, rather, is to size up the type of case you anticipate attending, assess when the line generally begins for such a case, and then arrive in line at least an hour earlier than that to beat the lone wolves.

Again, the type of case before the Court will dictate how early you must arrive. These types of cases divide rather neatly into three categories:

  • The “Dogs”: If all you want out of your trip to the Court is a chance to see an argument–any argument–without sacrificing too much sleep, then these are the cases for you. “Dogs,” as the SCOTUS press corps calls them, are the highly technical cases that receive no newspaper coverage. Think tax cases, ERISA cases–cases that are very important to specialized practitioners but without any political salience or general public interest. If both arguments on a particular morning are dogs–as they will be on Monday, March 22–then I suggest getting in line between 7am and 8am to guarantee that you are within the first fifty seats that the Court reserves for the general admission line for every case. I don’t go to these cases, so if you want to be first, I won’t make a fuss.
  • The “Mid-Majors”: If you want to go to a case where the justices are not falling asleep–it does happen!–and you can understand at least some of their back-and-forth with the advocate, but you don’t want to sleep outside overnight with a bunch of yahoos, then go to a mid-major case. These cases attract the public’s attention without creating a frenzy. F1@1F’s first three cases–Briscoe, Comstock, and American Needle–were prime examples of mid-majors. The line starts forming for these cases soon after 5am, when the DC Metro begins service. You’re safe for a seat in the first fifty if you get to the Court by 7am, but get there earlier to witness a magnificent sunrise over the Captol.
  • The “Blockbusters”: Think abortion, guns, church-and-state, death penalty, war on terror, gay rights. To be competitive for a top spot in line for one of these cases, set up camp by 4am. And even then, that may not be enough. In Closed Chambers, for example, Edward Lazarus opens the book with a description of the long overnight line in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 1992’s landmark abortion case. For Heller, 2008’s blockbuster Second Amendment case, I had a friend who arrived at the Court at 4pm the previous day and was still 40th in line. Indeed, for McDonald last week, I got to the Court at 8am on Monday for the 10am oral argument on Tuesday–and still got third by two-and-a-half hours. This term, there are two remaining blockbusters: Christian Legal Society v. Martinez on April 19th, and Doe v. Reed on April 28th. But not all blockbusters are created equal and neither of these cases will require campouts to get in. Doe, however, will have added significance because it is not only the last oral argument of the term, but it also may very well be the final oral argument in Justice John Paul Stevens’s thirty-five year career.

If you understand the tiers laid out above, then you have all the tools you need to seize the top spot in line.
Next week, in the second part of this two-part series, I’ll tell you what to expect once you’ve scored a spot.

Find more from Mike Sacks at First One @ One First and the ABA Journal.

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