Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) said this morning that Americans “should not have to camp out for days” simply to watch historic arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court. He raises a good point that much of the country may not know anything about.
There are about 400 seats in the Supreme Court’s main chamber, but most are reserved for journalists, members of the court bar, and guests of the justices. In many instances, only about a fourth of the seats are available to the public, and they’re distributed on a first-come-first-served basis.
So, if you want to literally have a seat to witness history in the making, you’ll have to be prepared to wait a long time. How long? The line for today’s argument on marriage equality started taking shape last week.
But as a practical matter, most of the folks who want to attend oral arguments don’t literally want to wait outside the building for 96 hours straight. As Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern explained, they don’t have to – they simply pay someone else to do it.
Starting Friday, if you or your law firm had $6,000 to shell out, a paid proxy—a company such as LineStanding.com or Washington Express—would arrange to have someone hold your place in line. The fact that some of these line-standers appear to be either very poor or homeless and may have to stand in rain, snow, sleet, or hail so that you don’t have to irks at least some people who feel that thousands of dollars shouldn’t be the fee to bear witness to “Equal Justice Under the Law” – the words etched over the door to the Supreme Court building – in action.As former Rep. Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, told the Caucus blog two years ago, the problem of wealthy lawyers paying poor people to suffer in the cold on their behalf would be remedied almost instantly if the court would allow its hearings to be televised.
That’s true. This morning, there were roughly 70 seats available for the public. Lithwick and Stern went to the line yesterday morning and counted 67 people.
One woman, who’d been there since Sunday, told them, “Let’s pay the poor black guys to hold the line for the rich white people.”
For what it’s worth, it’s never been altogether clear to me why so much effort goes into this in the first place. There are some extraordinary journalists who cover the Supreme Court, and they’ll tell us in considerable detail what happened. You won’t even have to pay $6,000 to read, watch, and listen to their reports.
What’s more, for some of these major cases, the court will release audio recordings and written transcripts of the oral arguments, so we can see – and hear – for ourselves exactly what happened.
To my mind, these ugly, Dickensian scenes outside the court are wholly unnecessary.
That said, if court officials were willing to allow cameras into the court, the problem would disappear. If they allocated seating through a lottery, that would likely help, too.
But the court is set in its old ways, and justices feel quite comfortable ignoring outside pressure for change since they don’t really answer to anyone.
The next time you’re in D.C., and you see huddled masses sitting along 1st Street NE, keep this story in mind.
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