Crazy. It's Jan of 2015, and this is the only video footage of a Supreme Court oral argument. Sure, you can listen to the arguments, but there is something lost in the lack of a panning lens.
So, let me describe for you what it is like to sit in the courtroom during an oral argument based on my early Christmas present of attending the Supreme Court's oral arguments on Monday, December 1st, 2014.
I had the pleasure and privilege of attending the highest court with a close friend who works with me. We looked over the Docket in the early fall, and decided which cases we would most like to hear. Getting these passes without standing in line, and essentially being in front of the viewing public (we were on the left of the court, second row from the bar, seated one person in from the aisle) took knowing someone who works in the court system. We had to submit our personal information for a background check, and then get our behinds to the court on an unseasonably warm Monday in December.
The court is gorgeous. The building was completed in 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, on time and under budget. But the white marble hallways are impressive and beautiful. But we did not spend much time in the hallway. It's the courtroom that we got to know very well.
We sought out the Marshall of the Court, surrendered over all of our electronic devices, and assembled in the Court to await the justices.
The room is cavernous, with elaborate carvings of historical judges and rulers flanking the floor in bas relief. Carved flowers adorn the ceiling, and the entire lofty assembly is perched upon great imported marble pillars. Look down and you see a different, less airy assembly of seating. Members of the Supreme Court bar sit in simple wooden chairs in front of the bar, with the Petitioner and Respondent right beneath the great wooden podium/table. They stand less than ten feet from the Chief Justice. Beyond the bar is the public gallery, complete with stiff, high-backed benches and minimal cushioning. It is always packed in the public gallery, while the seats reserved for guests of the Justices have more space. Clerks line the right of the court; the press lines the left. In the rear, behind the columns is a separate mini-viewing gallery where the public can cycle through for a three to five minute glimpse of the proceedings.
And what the public views? The wooden lectern, complimented by towering crimson drapes between large columns of marble. The chairs; black leather high backed swivel chairs, will become the vehicles of the Justices shortly. (Fascinating fact, each chair follows justices as they move up in seniority on the court. Upon retirement, the justices are gifted the chairs by their peers on the court.) The only break in the monotony is a single brass clock, purely for the view of the public. I never saw the councils look up to see their pace.
So you sit. and sit. and sit. and wait. I did not mind. After all, Ruth Bader Ginsburg had spent the Thanksgiving break in the hospital receiving a stint; she fell ill while working out with her physical trainer the week before. I was giddy with anticipation. The first case, Perez v Mortgage Bankers Assn., was not as interesting as the 1st Amendment challenging Elonis v United States.
Once the Supreme Court of the United States Police discusses expectations (one of the very few bureaucracies associated with the judicial branch), the Marshall introduces the justices.
Look, I don't know what I expected. More prestige and elaborate ceremony, I guess. But this is not a dog and pony show. These are nine very real and seriously intelligent people doing their job. They get right to it. They do not have some big flourish that is used to wow the crowd. They sit, and immediately their personalities come out.
Ginsberg usually asks the first question, which is directed to the Petitioner; on this day she did not. Justice after justice peppered the counsel with questions; rarely was there time to answer the question in full. This is referred to as a hot bench, where the justices are actively involved in discussing issues via the counsel. (The court room antics you see on TV, with a passive justice, is referred to as a cold bench.) Sometimes the justices are hostile, as was Justice Kagan during an exchange with the respondent's counsel in the Perez case. (It was so painful to listen to the counsel try to disagree with Kagan.) Yet, it is fascinating to see Justices all but say exactly what they want to come of the decision. Justice Breyer, when he wasn't sleeping, learing around the bench, rocking in his chair, or swiveling around to talk to Justice Thomas, made plain that he did not want the Perez case to be a general decision, but instead a very narrowly crafted one. Some Justices barely speak, as did Justice Alito. I did not catch much from him until the very end of the Elonis case, where he made a very astute prediction as to how this case could impact free speech and threatening language.
Additionally, sitting in the gallery is hard. After the thrill of seeing the Justices, and the odd assortment of semi-celebs like Lyle Denniston of SCOTUSBlog and Nina Totenberg of NPR, you are in it for the long hall.
The benches are painful, and there is no relief from the rigidity. The material is incredibly detailed; recalling an impressive subject-matter expertise coupled with agility in arguments. The questions are relentless; it is hard to keep up with. I was so keen on understanding Perez (a fascinating case about rulemaking and allowing comment from industry and special interest) that I was exhausted for Elonis, and found myself struggling to keep up. In essence, I was impressed with the intellectual prowess on both sides of the bench.
Photo via Flickr/Ted Eytan