Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Supreme Court Field Trip

Today I finally did something that I have wanted to do for many years:  I attended a session of oral arguments at the Supreme Court.

(Blackberry self-portrait)

It was awesome.  OK, it probably wasn't that awesome for the 50+ teenagers visiting with their high school class; they had fallen asleep on each others' shoulders within 10 minutes of the Justices entering the room.  But I was as giddy as a schoolgirl (a schoolgirl at junior prom, not one who is being forced to sit through a Supreme Court oral argument).  For an attorney such as myself, this is the big dance, and I loved it.  Some observations:

1 - All of the Justices were super impressive.  I did not expect to leave with that impression, particularly after having spent a few years in law school learning how to tear Supreme Court decisions to shreds.  And I know that politically I'm supposed to abhor four or five of the Justices, depending on what side of the aisle I'm on.  But I'm not talking politics or judgments.  At the oral argument today I saw something that wasn't discussed in law school and never makes headlines:  the Justices were incredibly thoughtful, very well prepared, shockingly funny and wicked smart.  I watched with pure delight as one Justice after the other made comments and asked questions that cut right to the heart of the complicated issues and dismantled the various arguments being advanced.  (As for Justice Thomas, who has been famously silent during oral arguments and remained so today, I was even impressed by him because he had the chutzpah to laugh out loud at the silliest arguments that were advanced -- his own pithy commentary, I suppose.)  I had to feel sorry, though, for the poor attorneys who were left begging for mercy.  Which brings me to my second point...

2 - The attorneys making oral arguments today were underwhelming and overwhelmed.  Granted, the cases today were very complicated (which explains why they were before the Supreme Court).  But the attorneys weren't ready for the tough questions, and it seemed like they were so blinded by the strengths of their cases that they had failed to prepare against their weaknesses.  Of course, the Justices focused almost exclusively on testing the weaknesses.  This led to a lot more stammering than I had expected.

3 - The Supreme Court building is amazing and instantly secured a spot on my list of top 5 buildings in DC (along with the U.S. Capitol, Union Station, the Library of Congress and the National Gallery of Art).

4 - Every American (who is not a teenager) should sit in on a session of the Supreme Court.  It did a lot of good in renewing my confidence in the U.S. judicial system and made me feel patriotic, and it probably would do the same for you (of course, I say the same thing when encouraging people to go to rodeos, which also have a patriotism-inducing effect).  And it's much easier to attend a Supreme Court session than I thought it would be.  Sure it can be tough to get a seat when a blockbuster case is scheduled for argument, but most days don't have blockbuster cases (which you can verify in advance on the Court's calendar) and you can just show up early (7:30ish) on the morning of the session and ask the guard for a placeholder ticket.  It's that easy.    Plus you just never know what you're going to get:  the two cases argued today (Coleman and Roberts) aren't going to be making any headlines, but I did get to watch Chief Justice Roberts read the Court's unanimous decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church, which is an important First Amendment/Religion Clauses case that is definitely making headlines and will continue to be an important decision for a long, long time.


sylvia/ticklethepear said...

Did you see Nina Totenberg?

Dad said...

I'm glad you were able to have that experience before you leave DC.

EmlovesJames said...

The one time I went to Oral Arguments was on a Law School trip with James. I really wanted to understand what was happening and had James review the cases with me ( a few times). After about three minutes I was lost and struggling to stay awake. I turned to James and asked what he thought (foolishly thinking he would side with me). He turned to me with a huge smile and said enthusiastically, "that was fun".