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Inside the Supreme Court, witnessing history

Every Supreme Court decision day, some lucky bystanders are allowed to witness history, sitting in as the justices read their opinions and witness history.
Courtesy Rachel Witkin
Courtesy Rachel Witkin

Every Supreme Court decision day, some lucky bystanders are allowed to witness history, sitting in as the justices read their opinions and witness history. The number of people allowed in changes every day. You just have to camp out in front of the Supreme Court all night and hope you're far enough towards the front to become one of those fortunate few.

When my friends and I found out that the Prop 8 and DOMA decisions were definitely going to be read this morning, we hopped a train from Baltimore in the hope that the line wouldn’t be too long. We got to the front of the Supreme Court around 8:30 p.m. There were already about 40 people there. All of us were crazy enough to sleep in front of the Supreme Court on the off chance that we would actually get in.

There had been a rumor that more than 50 people would be able to enter the Court, but no one knew for sure. The crowd was a melting pot: from the gay couple whose lives would be personally affected by the upcoming decisions, to people who supported traditional marriage, to libertarians who were against DOMA because they didn’t think the government should be involved in people’s personal lives in the first place. The line was mostly comprised of law students who had read every oral argument for each decision and were excited to see the judicial process at work. While they waited, some had lively discussions about the case and politics in general. Many were on Twitter, following the Texas abortion filibuster.

We knew it was going to rain so we brought a ton of trash bags and umbrellas to keep all of our stuff dry. The storm came around 11:30 p.m., leaving most of us soaked for the rest of the night. A few people left the line at this point, giving up because of the rain.

At about 1 or 2 a.m., some people tried to sleep. The smartest brought inflatable pools to sleep in--inexpensive and easy to carry. Others talked throughout the night or took a break from the wait by walking to Union Station. I probably got about a half-hour of sleep.

Courtesy Rachel Witkin
Courtesy Rachel Witkin

My friend and I headed to Union Station around 5 a.m. to get changed. We had slept on the wet ground all night but didn't want to look as though we had. When we got back, a few protesters had arrived.

SCOTUSblog came around 7 a.m. with doughnuts for the people in line. Everyone in the crowd was excited to see the people whose blog they had been following feverishly all week.

At around 7:30 a.m., someone handed out cards that stated our place in the line. Though I had been number 40 on an unofficial list when I arrived, I was now number 43, which made me one of the last people allowed into the Court.

Two hours later, we were seated. We had no idea what was going on outside, but it didn’t matter because we were the only people in the world privy to this view.

At around 10:00, the buzzer went off and we all stood up and watched as the justices took their seats, only a few feet away from us. Justice Kennedy began reading his opinion. We sat there, watching DOMA become unconstitutional right before our very eyes. It was interesting to watch the other justices’ reactions to Kennedy. Clarence Thomas looked a little bit bored. And from the expression on his face, it was evident from the beginning that Scalia was going to dissent.

Anyone could have read Scalia’s dissent to know why he was disgusted with the majority, but his way with words and his emphatic tone made listening to the dissent somewhat enjoyable, though his argument seemed to never end.

He seemed to have quite a sense of humor, moving straight into his opinion for Sekhar vs. U.S., the case no one cared about today, promising the court that this one would be much quicker. When he mixed up the words extortion and coercion, which would have completely gone against his point, he laughed, saying “I almost blew that one!”

Chief Justice John Roberts then moved on to read his Prop 8 decision. When he was done, he thanked the four Court employees who were retiring, and said that the court would reopen in October. Then the justices left the court. After hours and hours of waiting, it was over in an instant.

We walked outside around 10:50 a.m. and realized that there were now swarms of people surrounding the court, with people waving signs and reporters eagerly talking about what this decision meant. Many were hugging and kissing each other. They were a stark contrast from the solemn court we had just left.

Rachel Witkin is a senior at Johns Hopkins University and an intern for Hardball with Chris Matthews.