When I found out my wife was going to run a marathon in Washington D.C., I was thrilled. As a lawyer in Tulsa, Okla., I follow the U.S. Supreme Court religiously — I listen to practically every oral argument in my car; I read all the opinions on criminal and constitutional matters. If a case particularly interests me, I will read all the briefs in that case, including each amicus brief, as well as the opinions of the lower court. Heading to D.C., I felt like I was on a pilgrimage.
Although oral arguments are not video recorded, members of the public can watch them in person, totally for free, at least monetarily. Of course, there is limited occupancy. Access is granted on a first-come, first-served basis. If you show up to the Supreme Court before arguments and you fall within the first 50 people in line, then you get to come inside and watch proceedings for the day. Knowing this, I picked a boring lineup of cases to watch: two contract cases that involved disputes surrounding the Federal Arbitration Act.
We arrived at the Court at 5:45 a.m. Walking up, we noticed an incredible line — 50 lawyers from China who traveled together, lined up in the front of the line, followed by about 20 more people. I had sorely miscalculated my chances. We felt like the Griswolds when they arrived at a closed-for-maintenance Walley World in “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” The group from China had arrived at 2 a.m. They were the only members of the public allowed in. I moved on, questioning how early I needed to show up the next day — or, since the next day had a more interesting lineup of cases, I wondered: Do I need to show up that same evening? I started feeling like I would not lay eyes on the nine justices who heavily influence our country’s future.
The next morning I woke up at 3:30 a.m. — I did not shower, I did not shave. I threw on khakis and two jackets, snagged an Uber and got to the court at 3:45 a.m. My wife came with me as moral support. When we arrived, we were fifth and sixth in line. The group who preceded us in line were political science undergraduate students.
We felt like we were waiting for a rock concert. The undergraduate students spoke excitedly about seeing Justice Ruth Ginsburg. They wondered what it would be like to say “hello” to her or to get her coffee or to bump into her by accident. The line steadily accumulated behind us. Every five to 10 minutes an Uber or a Lyft would ferry someone to the court. Before sunrise, the line numbered well over 50 people. We waited until 7:30 a.m. to enter the building. Once inside, we waited until 10 a.m. — more than six hours since I arrived — for oral arguments.
It was a surreal experience inside the court. Justice Clarence Thomas routinely leaned back and stared at the ceiling. Occasionally the justices would whisper to each other while the lawyers argued their positions. Many of the justices have aged significantly from the image in my mind. At times, I could not tell if Justice Ginsburg was awake or reading — almost the entire time she looked straight down, where the audience could only see her hair and her shoulders. When she spoke, it was sometimes not discernible if she was asking a question or making a statement.
At the same time, it was a very predictable experience. Justice Stephen Breyer asked exceptionally hard questions that cut straight to the core of the dispute. Justice Elena Kagan posed probing, clear hypotheticals. Justice Thomas asked nothing.
I watched especially close the two newcomers, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. At some point, Justice Breyer asked a question that made me burst into laughter. Justice Kavanaugh laughed as well, and for a second it appeared that he was laughing with me while he looked in my direction.
Afterward, I felt like I had shared an experience with strangers that could never be revisited. In an age where children can film themselves eating breakfast, the experience felt powerful but fleeting. This was the one event for which I could not share a link with my friends to show them exactly what I saw. Despite that, the court will rule on these cases, and these opinions will guide every lower court in this nation for years to come. Those lasting, far-reaching consequences are exactly why I would stand with strangers in the cold at 4 a.m. all over again.
Kevin Keller is a lawyer in Oklahoma; his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.