U.S. Supreme Court
Camping Out to See SCOTUS Live
Posted Dec 6, 2007 2:41 PM CDT
By Ari Kaplan
Ari Kaplan is a lawyer and freelance writer based in the New York City area. He is developing a documentary called Like Snowflakes in December about lawyers working with detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
Here’s some advice: If you are ever going to camp outside the U.S. Supreme Court to hear oral arguments in a high-profile case, as I did along with 100 or so others yesterday, wear two (or three) pairs of socks. Also, wear a suit, especially if you are lucky enough to have a press pass.
I did neither, which only added to my adventurous and exhausting 12-hour whirlwind tour of the court to hear Boumediene v. Bush and Al Odah v. United States, which were consolidated. I arrived at the steps of the grand courthouse at 2 a.m. to experience the pre-rock concert-like atmosphere with 52 others on the line seeking a coveted seat in the public viewing gallery.
I brought my tripod and video camera to collect documentary footage. Then I started interviewing those shuttling between sleeping bags and conversations that can only take place at the base of some of the world’s most famous steps in the middle of a deceivingly clear 20-degree night.
After a few conversations, what I found was that the maligned generation of millennials that has been written off as disaffected and self-absorbed is actually quite inspiring, if given the chance. There was a contingent of students from the University of Texas School of Law who flew to Washington from Austin with tickets purchased by their National Security & Human Rights Clinic, one of the law school clinics that represents Guantanamo Bay detainees. There was a group of George Washington University freshmen on line for the second time in a few weeks, motivated by their writing instructor. And, then there were the two German law students spending the semester at Georgetown, the Allen & Overy associates who flew down from New York, the pair of Yale law students, the high school teacher, the duo from SUNY New Paltz and a former JAG officer who flew in from Germany to hear the arguments.
“At a certain point, you get to know how the world works or how it is working right now for better or worse, but I hope it can be better,” says New Paltz senior Joshua Simons.
Photo by Ari Kaplan
Alex Fumeli, a Georgetown senior who is taking a class taught by former Solicitor General Seth P. Waxman, who was arguing for the petitioners, agrees. “We’re here to see what could be a very important case for our generation,” he says. “I think [the issue of habeas corpus rights for detainees] is something that is a really important moral question of our time.”
At about 6 a.m., it started snowing, and by 8 a.m., when the marshals at the court began issuing numbers for the public viewing gallery, it was starting to stick. The guards then let people enter the building around the corner—where counsel admitted to the Supreme Court bar have access—and use the restrooms or buy coffee in the cafeteria. I was the first on line outside the public affairs office to obtain my press pass.
I did not, however, realize that I needed to wear a jacket and tie. Standing before the public affairs officer in my jeans, hardtop Adidas sneakers and six layers of body armor, I had a problem. Although my very smart wife suggested that I bring slacks, I had no tie or jacket (I was ignoring the problem of the hardtops, hoping that no one would notice). One of the reporters who saw the beads of sweat forming on my brow mentioned that former Chief Justice Warren Burger used to personally ask reporters improperly dressed to leave their seats after the justices took the bench. So, I actually ran to the gift shop and bought a $40 blue striped silk tie adorned with the scales of justice. It matched my collared shirt, though not my pinstriped pants. It was passable enough, and I made it through with my souvenir in tow.
I was assigned seat E-1 and sat with Charlie Savage, the beat reporter for the Boston Globe and the author of Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy. I have to admit in all seriousness that when I saw Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio and Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times sitting in the front row of the press corps, I felt like I had just seen two of my favorite celebrities. I was also lucky to meet Tony Mauro of Legal Times and chat with him about his almost three decades covering the court.
I had a pretty good seat blocked only slightly by one of the court’s massive interior columns—which was lucky because Chief Justice Roberts did not have a good line of sight to my gift-shop tie. For those who could not see at all, there was actually someone indicating the number of the justice who was speaking. (Roberts is No. 1, and the numbers ascend according to seniority).
Seeing the justices in action was impressive. It seemed like Roberts, Scalia and Ginsburg were particularly interested in Waxman’s argument on behalf of the detainee petitioners, while Souter, Breyer, Stevens and Kennedy were concerned with the points made by Solicitor General Paul Clement. Clarence Thomas did not say a word.
Despite the sophistication of the arguments, I could not help but appreciate the incredible talent and acumen of Waxman and Clement. Each performed amazingly well in front of a packed crowd.
At about noon, I left the building exhausted. As I was descending the steps, I ran into Waxman, now a partner with of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr, which has spent approximately 33,000 hours between 40 lawyers since assuming the representation of six Bosnian men detained at Guantanamo Bay for the past six years. I congratulated him on his performance and told him what an honor it was to meet him.
I felt as if I had stayed out all night for tickets to a rock concert, saw the show and then serendipitously ran into its star performer.
I highly recommend attending an argument in person, with a press pass if you can get one, and preferably in the spring term. If not, bring extra socks. It gets cold at around 3 a.m. And, of course, wear a tie. If you forget one, call me. I have one featuring the scales of justice. My only regret is that I did not ask Waxman to sign it.