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  • Michael Mullan

My experience of attending a Supreme Court case

This is my own personal story of how I got on attending a Supreme Court case in DC. On the Sunday night myself and my wife Mel, who would attend the next day’s hearings, strolled down to the steps of the Supreme Court to ascertain how long it would take for us to walk down in the morning from our hotel. We were shocked at what we found! At least twenty people were sleeping out for TUESDAY’s case! We couldn’t believe the amount of people that were queuing up, establishing their position early in order to ensure they got in to see the case on LGBT rights on Tuesday. 

When we began to ask these people why were they there, some explained that they were there making money. Some of the people were being paid by others to hold their place in line. Others were there for personal reasons, in that they were passionate about LGBT rights and wanted to see how the Supreme Court would address the relevant issue in person. Despite the alarm of seeing so many people sleeping out for the day after our case, we were relieved to discover that no one was sleeping out for Monday morning’s case, the Kahler case on the constitutionality of the insanity defense. We began to ask the seasoned sleepers who had done this previously about what advice they had for us, and what time should we aim to arrive at in the morning and start queuing.  Again we were shocked to learn that we should aim to arrive at approximately 4am or 4.30am. This was not only the opinion of the seasoned sleepers, but also of the police officer standing guard at the bottom of the Supreme Court steps. Now that we had our time of arrival we began to think about what materials might come in handy for queuing from 4am for 6 hours until  10am when the Kahler case was due to start. Unfortunately at this stage it was past 9pm at night, so we took an Uber across town to get supplies at the nearest Target supermarket.  We stocked up on drinks and snacks, and following the advice of the seasoned sleepers, we bought two fold up chairs, blankets and umbrellas. We were all set for our 4am start. We awoke at 4am and quickly I dawned a suit and shoes, and off we went.  We only had a fifteen minute walk to the bottom of the Supreme Court steps, to the right of which we knew was our line for that mornings Kahler case. When we arrived, we were once again dismayed. We already knew that only 50 seats were guaranteed to be given out to the public on any given day. From a quick guess it looked like there was about 50 people already in line. While my wife Mel saved my place in line for a minute, I went to the top of the queue and started to count how many people were ahead of us. Much to our delight and relief, according to my first count, we were number 46 and 47 in line.  We were over the moon, our traveling to DC from Boston to see the case and getting up at 4am with all our purchases was all going to be worth it because we were within the first 50 people, and so guaranteed a seat. This news gave both of us a lift, which we needed given the early time and lack of sleep the night before. Our relief was infectious as we informed our fellow queuers directly beside us that they too would be guaranteed a seat according to my count. As a result, we were all very excited and chatting away to everyone around us. We were talking to our closest neighbor about her interest in seeing the Supreme Court generally as a divorce lawyer, and how she dragged along her two sisters-in-law for the experience. We also learnt about the background of another group of queuers who were forensic psychiatrists and psychologists. We also learnt that there were other law students among us, as well as a large bus of Chinese businessmen and lawyers who were beyond the first 50 in line.  However, despite the good mood in the line, we began to realize that the queue looked a little longer than when I did my first count. I then recounted the line and learnt that we had moved from numbers 46 & 47 to numbers 48 & 49. We soon learnt that the cause of the line getting longer was people saving places for their friends and colleagues and allowing them to skip the line. This created a bit of stress, especially when we realized that we were no longer within the first 50 people in line. This was incredibly frustrating given that we had started queuing from such an early time that morning. We all began to panic wondering whether all of the sacrifices would be worth it. After the first 50 got their tickets at 7.30am (we were 5 spaces off), we learnt that additional spaces could be made available for the public if certain reserved spaces were not filled.  This provided us with some hope, but we were told that it was impossible to say how many additional tickets would be made available - it could be 1 ticket or 40 tickets. As time went on, our spirits began to drop because we were told the additional tickets were usually made available by 9.15am. But ultimately we got in! At 9.45am about 20 tickets were handed out and at numbers 54 & 55 we were now guaranteed admission. Thankfully all the preparation, early morning and waiting was worth it. With our tickets in hand, we rushed up the steps of the Supreme Court and stood in another line. We were then told the rules of admission - that no bags were allowed, no electronic devices, no food or drinks etc. These all had to be stored in lockers. When we eventually got into the Supreme Court courtroom itself, you couldn’t but not feel you were part of something special - in a place where decisions were made that changed the course of history through cases like Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, Plessy v. Ferguson, Gideon v. Wainwright, Miranda v. Arizona, Lawrence v. Texas, and Obergefell v. Hodges. And that day, that decision on the insanity defense would not only transform my whole PHD thesis, but more importantly would have a huge positive effect on defendants with mental illnesses across the country. It was amazing to see the brightest lawyers in America summarizing their argument and responding to questions that the justices had in relation to issues addressed in their written submissions. Despite the perception that all legal cases take years to come to a decision, when presenting a case to the Supreme Court, lawyers are only allowed 30 mins each which includes questions being put to them by the justices. Seeing the interplay between the justices such as Justice Ginsberg, Chief Justice Roberts and the newest Justice Kavanaugh and the lawyers who are the best in the country was nothing but inspiring. Hearing the Justices intervene during the counsel’s argument and ask questions of them was very interesting and gave an indication of which way they might vote.  Overall, what an amazing experience it was to sit in on such an instrumental case directly related to my PHD. In terms of advice for anyone who wants to sit in on a Supreme Court case, the first thing to note is to go get there early, at approximately 4am unless it is a particularly popular topic such as LGBT rights or abortion rights. In that case, many people camp overnight. Remember to bring quarters for the locker storage. I would also recommend reading the written submissions prior to hearing the oral argument, as the oral argument only lasts 1 hour. To fully benefit from the oral arguments and to understand what’s going on, you can read the written submissions available on SCOTUSblog.com


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