How does attending a U.S. Supreme Court oral argument usually work?
March 28, 2012 9:32 AM   Subscribe

How does attending a U.S. Supreme Court oral argument usually work?

In relation to this week’s Supreme Court hearings on health care, I’ve seen a few stories about those waiting in line for days to see part of the arguments.

Does anybody know what it’s like to wait in line for “normal” (i.e. non-high-profile) cases? The Court has a page on its website about attending an argument, but there’s nothing there about when you really need to show up in order to get a seat, or how many seats are available, or things like that.

Does anyone have any experience in seeing arguments? For a non-headline case, when would I need to show up? Does it always fill up? Any other tips on getting a seat? Are there any options to reserve seats through tour groups?

I know you can hire someone to stand in line for you, but you have to tell them when to start, and I have no idea when that would be. (Plus, I think I’d rather stand in line myself.)

posted by ochenk to Travel & Transportation around Washington, DC (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm pretty sure there are sixty seats available -- or, more accurately, a person handing out tickets on some footage I saw on Maddow said something about handing out sixty tickets for the open seats.
posted by naturalog at 9:36 AM on March 28, 2012

Run of the mill, show up before eight AM.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:44 AM on March 28, 2012

I showed up at 7:30 AM when I visited and was at the top of the line for the second case of the day (literally just missed the first case by two people). The guards were very helpful and clear about what to do.

There is a "five minute line" that allows you to enter the court for - you guessed it - five minutes that didn't have any people in it when I visited.
posted by saeculorum at 9:46 AM on March 28, 2012

You cannot reserve seats as far as I know. The Court doesn't go out of its way to cater to tourists.

You can, however, show up for the "three minute line," which rotates people through the Court in three-minute intervals. You can get back in line as many times as you like. You're all but guaranteed to make it in for at least three minutes that way, and odds are decent you'll get more than one sitting.
posted by valkyryn at 9:46 AM on March 28, 2012

Best answer: Via WashPost:
It’s one thing to hear about the weighty decisions America’s highest court debates; it’s another thing entirely to see oral arguments and rulings delivered in person.

Have a plan: Not too much prep work is needed, unless you want to hear a specific case. For a schedule, go to and click on Oral Argument Calendar. Otherwise, the main trick is to show up early, because lines often form before the building opens on weekdays at 9 a.m., and you should expect large crowds for high-profile cases. You can end up waiting outside, so plan for the weather. Hour-long oral arguments are Monday-Wednesday at 10 and 11 a.m. from the first Monday of October through late April in two-week intervals (there are longer hiatuses in December and February). Occasionally there are afternoon arguments, and after oral arguments conclude for the year, orders and opinions are delivered Monday at 10 a.m. until late June.

Once you’re there: Seating for the Monday-Wednesday hearings is first-come, first-served, so you might not get in. Either way, the building itself is open for self-guided tours weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (except federal holidays). Expect to see lots of marble as well as a statue of John Marshall — known as “the great chief justice” — portraits and busts of justices. If you have time, docents offer 30-minute lectures on Supreme Court history from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. (The lectures are offered when the court is not sitting or after it has adjourned for the day.)
posted by inigo2 at 9:48 AM on March 28, 2012

So, I was in college in DC in the mid-90s. I can't remember the particular case, but it had something to do with Colorado and gay rights. A bunch of people I knew were interested in seeing the case argued before the Supreme Court and I figured why not.

We got to the court late in the evening preceding the day's festivities and essentially camped out (it was spring, in DC, and so was pleasantly warm) for the night before being admitted into the court first thing in the morning.

As I recall, I was dead tired and did not pay much attention to the proceedings. Clarence Thomas sat, silently, looking up a the ceiling. The other justices all spoke, though Rehnquist spoke more than the others.

One of the lawyers appeared somewhat nervous but much less so than the Solicitor General did in yesterday's arguments in favor of the individual mandate.

I don't recall any rotation of visitors, even though more people wanted to see this particular case being argued than there were seats available.
posted by dfriedman at 10:06 AM on March 28, 2012

Sounds like dfriedman was at the argument for Romer v. Evans. As you may guess from the length of the wikipedia article, that was a fairly big case, and probably as popular for visitors as the health care arguments. For a less-newsworthy case, being in line by 7:30 or so should get you in the door. It does always fill up.
posted by Partial Law at 10:50 AM on March 28, 2012

Yes, that was it. Thanks.
posted by dfriedman at 10:56 AM on March 28, 2012

Best answer: For regular days, one question is whether it is a one argument day, or a two argument day.

On the most recent one-argument day I went to, I got there at a little after 5am and was second in line. The students who got there at 6:45 also got in, but were close to the end. I'm not completely sure when the cutoff was, but I think it was around 7:15 or 7:30

Just as an FYI - what happens is that they give out numbers at some point (I think it was 8am, but it could have been 9am) and then they let you in to go to the cafeteria and use the bathroom. You get back in line by number outside, after that, and then they take you in to be seated. There are lockers in the Court that can hold a normal size backpack, and you should bring quarters for those, because nothing but pen and paper are allowed into the court.

The number of tickets isn't set -- on normal days there are often some tickets set aside for visiting groups, so the number of seats available is less than 60.
posted by mercredi at 11:08 AM on March 28, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks all!
posted by ochenk at 11:39 AM on March 28, 2012

This article in BusinessWeek describes the allocation of tickets to various groups.
posted by grouse at 1:55 PM on March 28, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the help. I attended arguments earlier this week, and it was amazing. For the sake of posterity, and to help others who might want to attend an argument, here are the details as I experienced them:

I went on a “normal” day, meaning that while there were plenty of people interested in this specific case, it wasn’t a particularly high-profile case. I got there at 5:45am. I was 8th in line. The first person said he got there at 5:40am, but my guess is that he got there a little earlier than that. By 6:10, the line was 15 people long. By 6:30, 30 people. And by 6:50, about 50 people. As far as I know, only the first 50 people got in. And as best as I could tell, the earlier you got there, the better seat you got for arguments.

Thanks again.
posted by ochenk at 2:46 PM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

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