A date with the Supreme Court
August 16, 2010 4:56 PM   Subscribe

How can we see a specific oral argument at the Supreme Court?

A partner at Mr. WWW's law firm has a case going to the Supreme Court this October. There is a specific date; we have our plane tickets and hotel reservation. But wait! We don't have tickets for the case!

The parner was granted 6 tickets, which he of course gave to his family. This being a big deal (for him, the firm, etc) we want to go too! It's our understanding that one is able to wait outside in line (sometimes overnight) to gain entrance to see a specific case in action.

Have you ever witnessed an argument at the Supreme Court? Better yet, was there one in particular you wanted and got to see? How exactly did you go about doing so?
posted by wocka wocka wocka to Law & Government (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
(I have seen this, but am looking more for personal experiences and any gotchas)
posted by wocka wocka wocka at 5:10 PM on August 16, 2010

From the Supreme Court website's FAQ on visiting the Court:

"All oral arguments are open to the public, but seating is limited and available on a first-come, first-seated basis. Before a session begins, visitors who would like to attend oral argument may form a single line on the plaza in front of the building....Visitors should be aware that cases may attract large crowds, with lines forming well before the building opens. Seating in the Courtroom is limited and cases may draw crowds of varying sizes; therefore it can be difficult to predict an arrival time that will guarantee seating. Seating for a session begins at 9:30 a.m. Visitors may begin lining up on the Front Plaza as early as they feel comfortable."

Sounds like you might have little choice but to line up. Is this a high profile case? Are there high profile cases docketed for the same day?

Here's an ABA Journal article about waiting in line for the Supreme Court. It mentions paid line waiters, which are a common sight at legislative hearings but apparently unusual for the Supreme Court. So that's an option you could look into, though I don't know how you'd go about finding one.
posted by jedicus at 5:18 PM on August 16, 2010

Argh, here's the ABA Journal article.
posted by jedicus at 5:19 PM on August 16, 2010

I have waited in line for a Supreme Court oral argument that I wanted to see. I got there quite early and had no trouble at all getting in.

Now, if it's a huge case with tons of press coverage (e.g. Bush v. Gore), you're not likely to get in. But if it's just a normal day, getting there early should work just fine.
posted by The World Famous at 5:25 PM on August 16, 2010

Get up reallly early. In 2006, 7am was early enough to get into lower profile cases happening early in the term, but if you're flying in especially for this I would line up even earlier. The only high profile case being argued in October looks like it's on October 6th (the Fred Phelps First Amendment case), so get up extra early if it's that day. Also, sometimes the attorney of record can get extra tickets -- I can't remember if you ask the Marshall or the Clerk of the Court, but your husband could ask the partner if he's willing to ask for extras. And if you know any current law clerks, they can get tickets for you directly too.
posted by yarly at 5:34 PM on August 16, 2010

If you aren't into getting up real early, and it is for a very high profile case, I have seen local requests for line-waiters for $50 or so. I vaguely recall a WaPo article on companies that supply people to wait in line, but can't find it.
posted by quadrilaterals at 6:04 PM on August 16, 2010

My dad, who has argued several cases in front of the Supreme Court, says that if you're a lawyer you can become a member of the bar of the supreme court and have access to arguments whenever. Otherwise he says just show up early.
posted by ghharr at 6:14 PM on August 16, 2010

You might want to look at this blog, First One at One First for tips. The author is a law student who had the goal of being first in line to every argument and during last term he would make predictions as to how popular various cases would be and how early to show up if you wanted to wait in line.

There is also a reserved seating area (and an overflow room outside the courtroom) for attorneys admitted to the Supreme Court Bar.

If you're not admitted, a brief request letter to the Marshal's office could get you a seat if it's not a controversial/high demand case. When I worked on an amicus brief for a case that was before the Court I was able to get a seat this way.
posted by bbq_ribs at 6:19 PM on August 16, 2010

I have waited in line for arguments multiple times-- once for a very high-profile case, also for much less high-profile ones. For very high-profile ones, you will have to get there, at a minimum, sometime the day before, and basically sleep on the sidewalk. For lesser cases, I have gotten tickets as late as 5 or 6 a.m., and I believe later may be feasible in some cases.

As for waiting in line: basically, they come by and take attendance every hour or so, and you have to be there during attendance to keep your place in line. That means it is possible to leave to go the bathroom, get food, get coffee, etc., but it isn't really possible to leave to sleep-- if you have the kind of case that's a waiting-overnight case.

If you'd like to get a lot more information, I recommend this blog, by a law student who has spent a lot of time sleeping on the sidewalk and trying to get in to high-profile oral arguments through the general-admission line. (My sense is that he doesn't have as much personal experience with the low-profile cases, but it should still give you a sense of the process.)

In addition to the arguments I've waited in line for, I've otherwise watched close to one hundred oral arguments at the Court, and am fairly familiar with the procedures. Feel free to me-mail me if you have more specific questions about your situation.
posted by willbaude at 6:22 PM on August 16, 2010

Also, it's slightly complicated when you're going to see the second case of the morning, because people don't have to leave after seeing the first one. That means you have to be prepared to sit through the first argument too, if you get in that early; but even if you don't get in for the first one, you might get in for the second one if enough people leave the first one.
posted by willbaude at 6:44 PM on August 16, 2010

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