Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Equal Justice Under... 30 Degrees (SCOTUS, Justices and an Adventurous DC Morning)

There is nothing quite like living in the city where a ten minute walk will send you to the line to hear the Supreme Court's oral argument session. There is nothing like the fact that you can wake up at 7am on a Monday morning, bundle up in more jackets than you think humanly possible, and take your good friend to get toffee nut lattes and stand in the freezing December wind waiting to get into that hallowed room.

Friends, I live in such a city. And yesterday, I lived out such a dream.

My obsession with the Supreme Court began in fifth grade. While we were learning about civic government (important lessons, to be sure) and filling out worksheets designating the three branches of government, I began to realize that being President was nothing compared with being Chief Justice. As Chief Justice, you got to wear those cool looking academic/Harry Potter robes that my dad always wears to Gordon graduations! As Chief Justice, you get to hold the Bible and administer the oath to the President! As Chief Justice, you get to sit in the very center of the most beautiful room in the city of Washington, DC! As Chief Justice... you got it pretty sweet.

And it was all a rushing downhill speed skating love affair. I read about John Roberts. I wrote a "Coursus Honorum" in high school following how JR had become Chief Justice, from Harvard to Harvard to law firm to district judge... I was (and in so many ways still am) amazed by that man's legal mind and the career he carved in his life. I took Constitutional Law my freshman year of college with one Dr. T. Sherratt, and I can say without hesitation that it has been the class in which I learned the most. We read five cases per class, briefed probably over 75 cases total, did two simulations and got the chance to both argue before the Court and to be the Court. If any of you who read this blog have ever been interested in constitutional law, I give the class my highest recommendation. You learn more about the Supreme Court, the way that law is crafted and interpreted, and how to identify ways of viewing the Constitution.

But I digress. Yesterday Hannah and I sipped our Starbucks as we stood with our sneakers and black flats on the marble steps in front of the soaring columns and the "Equal Justice Under Law" engraving. 8:15 became 8:30 became 9:00, when we knew they would let people into the building to be seated for the day's oral arguments. We were line numbers 53 and 54. They took in the first 50 people. We looked at each other, horrified. We had made it up to the very front of the line and they weren't going to let us in!

I was tempted to charge the building, make a run for it, because at this point more blood would have gotten to my freezing toes had I charged one of the security guards. I hopped up and down; Hannah and I chatted about plans to see each other after this crazy adventure in DC ends. 9:00 became 9:25 and the guards looked at the long line of public citizens from behind their ski masks and warm fuzzy hats and their eyes seemed to crinkle in sympathy (or perhaps laughter).

I made eye contact with one of the guards and he smiled at me. Yes! I thought. My feminine wiles will surely get this man to let me and my friend into the hallowed building where justice resides and balances the legislature behind me! Score one for Hilary!

No such luck. The guard shrugged his shoulders as if to say, "Tough luck... I know it's 30 degrees, I know the wind is blowing in all the possible openings of your many layers of clothing at 15 mph, and I know you've been here for at least an hour in the cold. However, justice requires that you wait your turn in line just like everyone else."

Feminine wiles defeated, I turned around and gasped. I still can't quite get over the fact that the Supreme Court building overlooks the back of the Capitol. I can't get over their proximity, and how the SCOTUS building really seems to be watching the Capitol building. I wonder how often they go to hang out in each other's buildings... our government branches are, when you think about, really just next door neighbors. I make a law over here, and you provide judicial review, and our neighbor over there signs it when it's been finished in my home.

Needless to say, we got into the building and number 54 (me) was the last one seated before the honorable justices of the United States Supreme Court began presiding over the room. Imagine for a moment you are in the studio of your favorite movie or TV show. You can't believe it, but you're seeing the cast of Glee or Grey's Anatomy or Shutter Island or The Hours at work. You can see them rehearse and do a take and you realize, you are watching the creation of the thing you love.

Breyer asks better, more biting questions than the most provocative moderator in a Presidential debate; Justice Alito's legal reasoning hushed his colleagues and prompted an entirely new discussion of the Pepper v. United States case. Chief Justice Roberts was fair, asking difficult questions of both sides that almost made it feel like neither could win. Justice Scalia, leaning back in his chair and almost chuckling to himself, interrupted, scolded, and through his sarcasm he pinpointed some of the most pressing legal issues that the lawyer presenting the case seemed to forget.

These justices demonstrated, in my one magical morning at the Supreme Court, that it is possible to think about the law in a dynamic, clever, deep and powerful way. It is possible even for me to begin to think about the law this way. How many times have I, in the course of this semester, been frustrated by the way that I see "the sausage being made"? How many times have I wondered whether we should just give the EPA the power to make energy policy, simply because no one seems able to get anything done comprehensively? Where is the law, I want to ask myself at every networking power play. Where is the law as I want to understand it, as living, important and governing?

Stand in the bitter cold on a December morning in the heart of Capitol Hill. Stand with your mismatched scarf, hat and gloves and drink a tall toffee nut latte, with a good friend, trying not to laugh at the very shined shoes of the group of businessmen in front of you... and as you ascend the steps of the building on First St., NE across from the Capitol, I think you may find one place where law is practiced that way.



  1. YOU SAW JUSTICE SCALIA??!?!?!?!? you're taking me back to the days of con law...i can't believe you got to experience that -- SO AWESOME!!

  2. Yes! I couldn't believe it either, really... but there he was. It was incredible! See you next week!


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