After Inauguration, people will go home. The massive tourist crowds which are expected to swell Washington D.C. to near bursting will dissolve. The politicians and bureaucrats will get back to business. And, after taking Monday off for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and Tuesday for the Inauguration, the Supreme Court will be back in session on Wednesday. Then, they will hear cases whose lawyers have worked almost as long as President Elect Barack Obama to be heard. If any of you Inauguration goers have flights which leave on Wednesday afternoon, you should spend the morning at the Supreme Court, since the oral arguments are open to the public.
People need to take the time to listen to these judges, because the nine people on the Supreme Court make decisions which affect a nation. Yes, they are checked by other governmental branches, but they still orchestrate an enormous amount of power. Whether or not you agree with the extent of their power or how they interpret the law, it’s commendable that the Supreme Court’s arguments are open to the public. For only when the general public is involved (even as observers), do we begin to understand and discuss and care about the issues and the legal system.
I knew very little about the legal system or the Supreme Court until I took Constitutional Law in high school. I didn’t go to law school, nor do I have plans to do so, but that course ended up being my favorite class. For homework each evening, we were assigned one or two Supreme Court cases and then the teacher lectured on them during the following class period. My teacher and the cases opened my eyes to the judicial branch of our federal government in a way that nothing else has before or since. Even these days, I sometimes read recent Supreme Court cases from Cornell law school’s online Supreme Court collection, just for fun. Since moving to Baltimore, I’ve taken advantage of the fact that you can go listen to and watch Supreme Court oral arguments. The judges’ specific questions to lawyers aren’t as moving as a general, charismatic inauguration speech, but the cases’ outcomes do change laws and lives at federal, state, and local levels.
A book which succinctly charts the main effects of certain Supreme Court rulings is The Supremes’ Greatest Hits. Its subtitle is “The 34 Supreme Court Cases Which Most Directly Affect Your Life,” and the book does well the necessary job of outlining Supreme Court cases for a lay audience. By focusing on the judges’ personalities and politics, Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Nine has also been successful in attracting an audience who may not usually be interested in the Supreme Court. And by having its oral cases open to the public, the Supreme Court also tries to attract a lay audience, though I imagine less people know about this opportunity than other Washington DC attractions, since the court doesn’t hear cases during the main tourist months.
If you are in Washington DC in the tourist off-season, and you do plan to listen to the oral arguments, arrive at the court very early, as they only allow a limited number of people inside. Last year my parents and I got in line at 7:30, hoping to listen to the ten o’clock and eleven o’clock arguments. We didn’t make it for the ten o’clock criminal case but we did make it inside for the eleven o’clock business case. If you actually want to know what the lawyers and judges are talking about, read the merit briefs–the respondents’ and petitioners’ cases–which are provided on the Supreme Court’s website. And if you can’t make it the day after Inauguration, that’s okay, because the Supreme Court hears oral arguments one to three days a week from October to April, year in year out. Maybe a while after this current ruckus, you’ll have a chance to go and hear this quiet, intelligent, and intense part of history being made.