(at the Supreme Court Tuesday for oral arguments, that is).
Baltimore is about an hour away from DC.
It costs $5.75 for me to get to DC.
DC is home to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court this week was hearing oral arguments for challenges to the Affordable Care Act (more commonly referred to as “Obamacare”).
This is one of the biggest cases of the term for the Supreme Court, not to mention this era.
The results of this case will be huge, with major repercussions for both health care reform and other cases involving the commerce clause.
Given these facts, I spent Monday-night-which-somewhere-became-Tuesday-morning camped out in front of the Supreme Court, hoping that our counts were accurate and we were one of the first 60 people camped out (generally assumed to be guaranteed a seat inside).
I left my class at Goucher early to take the collegetown from Goucher to Penn Station, in time to take the last MARC train of the night. MARC is the Maryland commuter rail system, which is a really affordable way to get to DC. One of us had gone ahead to see if it was worth camping out, and once I’d confirmed we had a chance (obsessive stalking of the NY Times coverage had revealed that 120 people had been let in for Monday’s hearings) I got on the train to DC. I got there around 10:15, and walked to the Supreme Court.
The Capitol and the Supreme Court during the day are impressive buildings. They’re enormous, and meant to convey power and prestige. At night, they’re something completely different. They stand out beautifully in the dark, and seem that much more powerful.
The Supreme Court has a no tents rule, and we were also limited by what we had with us in Baltimore/what could reasonably be taken to DC and into the courthouse. It was also 20-something degrees and windy. We brought MANY layers, created a mini fort out of umbrellas and raincoats (it didn’t actually rain, but we’d brought raingear in hope of not needing it if we brought it, and assuming if we didn’t bring it, it would actually rain), and made trips to 7/11 and Union Station for hot tea throughout the night. It was still freezing (hands and feet having feeling is overrated), but we made it through to the morning of misleading sun (last week had been in the 80s and sunny, but this week was big on wind and cold).
Sunlight means no more depending on phones/ipods to read anything, and it also means the potential for warmth. Around 5 or so, more people started showing up to the line (there weren’t really any additions between midnight and 5) and the line continued to grow slowly for the next few hours. The news crews started to gather, and set up equipment in front of the court. Around 6:30, interviews started, and continued up until tickets.
The Tickets Go Out:
Usually, there are about 60 seats for members of the general public. That can increase if the SC brings in extra chairs, or there aren’t extra guests. Members of the Supreme Court Bar (fun fact: any attorney who’s passed a bar exam can apply for membership in the Supreme Court Bar; it’s not just for people who argue before the court) and VIPs have a special line (they also didn’t have to camp out!) and take up a certain number of seats. However, seats for this case were a hot commodity–there are 26 states challenging the AFA, as well as a suit on behalf of private/independent groups, and a lot of people wanted to be there.
Around 7:15, they started announcing the ticket protocol, and around 7:30, the first round of tickets went out. We were 65th, 66th, and 67th in line, and didn’t make the first cut. However, the first 15 or so people in line were waiting in line for tickets to sell, not tickets to actually enter themselves. My friend managed to buy one of those tickets for $30 right after they were handed out (to put that in comparison, a man had bought one of these people’s space in line for $250 about 20 minutes beforehand), leaving the other two of us outside waiting.
The wait continued, with security telling us it would be at least another hour before we knew if we could get in. By this point, the groups holding rallies outside had assembled (no political-celebrity sightings at this point, although we were pretty sure that big names would show up soon [Rick Santorum was there on Monday, and Michele Bachmann did show up later]). A little before 9, a man came out, holding a few tickets. He had them for members of his group that didn’t end up showing up, and had them for the first six people in line, aka #61-#66. WE WERE IN.
Inside the Supreme Court:
The Supreme Court inside was nothing like what I’d imagined. I’d competed a week and a half ago inside the US District Courthouse, which had beautiful courtrooms, but I was not prepared for this. The halls are wide and full of marble, and the Court itself is magnificent. It’s about as close to something like a palace that you get here in the US. It was beautiful, and I couldn’t believe I was there.
The Supreme Court is a place where so many important cases have been heard. Historically, it’s where cases I’ve read were argued. It’s where important American legal concepts came to fruition. And on Tuesday, it’s where the Supreme Court was hearing oral arguments in Department of Health and Human Services v. Florida concerning the individual mandate section of the Affordable Care Act. Whether you agree with the AFA or not, I think everyone can agree that it’s a major piece of legislation, and the ruling on this case will have a substantial impact on America.
Oral arguments run extremely efficiently. Each side has a specific amount of time, and the justices can spend as much of that time as they want asking questions (and asking questions can often just mean making a statement). It’s an intense atmosphere–justices typically ask multi-part questions, advocates have multi-part answers which are then often interrupted, and you’re expected to be familiar with anything the justices throw at you. There’s no time to pause, or consult anyone, or flip through your notes. It’s you, and the Commerce Clause, and the individual mandate.
It’s exhilarating being there. Last year in Con Law, when cases challenging the constitutionality started being brought, we talked about these issues. Is this considered interstate commerce? Can inactivity be regulated? Does inactivity have a substantial enough impact on commerce? What about Wickard? What about Raich? How far can individual mandates go? But this time it wasn’t in a stuffy classroom on the third floor of Krieger. It was in the SUPREME COURT, and it was amazing.
When you enter, you go in the disguised side entrance, through the first set of metal detectors, and onto the bottom floor of the building. When you exist, it’s at the top of the steps, on the same floor as the courtroom, looking down on everything below. It was a beautiful day, the bottom of the steps were full of members of the press and protesters, and we had just witnessed oral arguments for one of the most important cases of the year (or decade or era, take your pick). I still can’t really believe we were there.