SCOTUS, Supreme Court

First One @ One First’s Guide to SCOTUS Seats, Part II: What to Expect?

mike sacks first one.jpgWelcome to Part II of First One @ One First‘s Guide to Scoring a SCOTUS Seat. My name is Mike Sacks and I am a Georgetown 3L and proprietor of F1@1F, 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.
Last week, I gave you all the information you need to be at the head of the line. But getting there is only the start of the full experience. After the jump, I give you some tips to maximize your morning.

  • Don’t bring a tent. My friends and I learned this the hard way when we camped out for Citizens United‘s September rehearing, which was also Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s first oral argument. After one of us packed up his tent, carried it over by bicycle, and began pitching it on the sidewalk, the overnight guard told us that tents and any other type of shelter are prohibited.
  • Until 7am, the line is self-regulated. This means that the order of the line depends on your vigilance. Before 7am, malefactors can cut in line and the Court police will not field complaints. In addition, it means that you should make friends with your fellow line-goers. With a sense of community comes food and bathroom breaks without fear of losing your place in line.
  • Around 7am, the Court police makes it official. The guard will tell you to gather all of your things (pack light!) and follow him or her in a single file line up to the Court’s plaza. After a few minutes of waiting, another guard will distribute numbered placeholders in the order in which you got in line.
  • The placeholders are not tickets. The guard will remind you of this more than once as he hands the placeholders out. He or she will tell you that to guarantee your place, you must be in line when they usher you inside the Court. When you ask what time that will be, the guard will coyly refuse to tell you, only stating that the first argument begins at 10am. Therefore, know that they will bring you inside around 9am, so you are free to go to the bathroom, eat, change, whatever. But be sure to get back to your place in by 8:45am.
  • Once inside, you wait some more. First, the guards herd at least the first fifty into the Court’s antechamber. A guard instructs you on what is clear to bring in (a pad and pen) and what must be checked (everything else). Then another door opens and the line proceeds through the first metal detector. After you pass through the detector, you must check your coats and bags to the left and put whatever else you have in a locker (bring a quarter!). Next, you line up before another metal detector, this one on the left side of the Court’s Great Hall. While you wait for members of the Supreme Court bar, those with reserved seats, and the SCOTUS press corps to go through this detector, take a moment to look up, down, and all around. Admire the busts of the Chief Justices lining the Hall. See if you can spot your favorite reporter. Sneer at those lucky law students whose professors secured them reserved seating. Smile at the families of those getting admitted to the Supreme Court bar.
  • Hope you don’t have a giant marble pillar blocking your view. After you pass through the second metal detector, an usher will lead you to your seat. The general admission seating wraps around the perimeter of the Court’s public gallery. Some unlucky souls will be seated behind a marble pillar that obstructs their view of, well, everything. A few of these unlucky souls, however, will be in prime position to see Art Lien work his sketchbook magic while the rest of us have to settle for seeing the justices in the flesh.
  • The last twenty minutes are the longest wait of all. At least in the dark, cold morning, you could talk to your neighbors and have the time pass quite quickly. Not so once you’re seated inside the Courtroom. You must remain near-silent and under constant threat of a shushing from one of the many guards pacing the aisles. You will watch the clock above the bench tick slower than you’ve ever seen a clock tick before. You will hear the five-minute buzzer. The guards then enforce a total silence, defied only by whispers at the front of the Court by the ever-jovial William Suter–the Clerk of the Court–and NPR’s Nina Totenberg, whose forty-year tenure on the SCOTUS beat puts her above even Justice Stevens’s reproach.
  • Oyez Oyez Oyez! When the gavel strikes at 10am and the Marshal admonishes you to draw near and give your attention, your agony of the wait will disappear. The justices will emerge, argument will begin, and before you know it, you’ll be spilling back out onto the Court’s steps satisfied with the spectacle you’ve just seen.

That’s all I’ve got. My collected wisdom since one very cold January morning is now yours. If you have any further questions, don’t hesitate to contact me. Meanwhile, I hope to see you out there. And if you beat me, then perhaps ATL and I can print a commemorative piece of apparel for you to parade around town. Whaddya say, Lat?
Earlier: First One @ One First’s Guide to SCOTUS Seats, Part I: When to Arrive?
Law Student of the Day: Mike Sacks


Photo Credit: Diego Radzinschi/National Law Journal

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