Story Research: Visiting the Supreme Court

Every so often, doing research for a story requires me to ask some pretty odd questions:

How long does it take to paint the outside of a 950 square foot bungalow?

How did small farm owners in southwestern Virginia feel about the Revolutionary War? Were they for or against independence?

How long does it take to drown?

Fortunately, finding out answers to questions like these just takes a little Google-sleuthing. Other times, doing research for a story requires me to go a little further. As I'm plotting out Book Three of my trilogy-in-progress, I had one burning question:

What is it like to actually witness a Supreme Court argument?

Google will get you pretty far with that one, too, but I decided I needed some first-hand experience. Yesterday I hopped on the Metro and went into D.C. to visit the Supreme Court.

From the blog: Story Research: Visiting the Supreme Court

Supreme Court arguments are open to the public, but seats fill up fast on a first-come, first-serve basis. The arguments are so popular that the Court actually has two lines for public attendees: one for people who want to attend a full argument and another for people who want to sit in the back for three minutes. Lines start forming hours before the Court actually opens. There's no guarantee that everyone who waits in line will get in, either. I decided to aim for the three minute line to increase my chances of getting in to the courtroom.

Yesterday, the Court was actually scheduled to have three arguments: one at 10:00, one at 11:00, and one at 1:00. I wasn't particular about which court case I heard, but I did want to go on a day where there was an afternoon session so that if I was running late, I'd still end up with a chance of getting in. That turned out to be a good idea. I got to Union Station at around 11:00 and hoofed it down First Street to the Supreme Court. I was in line on the Court's plaza by about 11:20 and got to the front of the line at 1:15.

View of the Supreme Court from across First Street. See how long the line outside is? That's not even half of it!

View of the Supreme Court from across First Street. See how long the line outside is? That's not even half of it!

Spending two hours waiting on the plaza gave me plenty of time to take notes on the scenery, the building's architecture, and the city around us. I ended up filling up a small legal pad with notes while I waited. The building itself is so ornate that it seemed everywhere I looked, I noticed something new. The Supreme Court and the plaza outside are made of marble, which is cool to the touch (even with the sun overhead at high noon.) As we inched closer to the front of the line, I could see the chandeliers through the glass of the main doors and the carvings on the ceiling.

That's when it really became exciting. The closer I got, the more I could imagine my main characters coming to the courtroom themselves. In my story, the characters are very invested in the outcome of the argument they come to witness. How thrilling would it be for them just to stand on the steps outside the building where the whole matter would finally be decided?

At the front of the line, I was given a red ticket and directed in through the visitor's entrance. The security is understandably pretty tight. We went through the first metal detector and upstairs to the hall outside the courtroom. There was a very small locker room for our bags, which cost a quarter to lock. Originally, I'd planned to bring my small notepad and a pen in with me, but the guards asked that we not bring anything at all. We went through security again before lining up outside the doors to the courtroom.

The website and guides are very clear that those of us in the three minute line might not have a good view, but we would be able to hear everything. We were directed to three rows of chairs in the back section, which was separated from the main courtroom seating by enormous pillars and red velvet curtains that had been pulled back.

I was lucky that I was directed to a seat in the front row of this section, midway between two pillars, so I had a pretty good view! I could see all eight justices (rest in peace, Justice Scalia). The 1:00 argument was Manrique vs. the United States. During the time I was there, the attorney for Mr. Manrique was presenting his argument to the justices. I was pretty impressed with the attorney's public speaking skills--I get nervous speaking in front of groups of people, so I can only imagine presenting a case before the Supreme Court.

The courtroom is entirely made of marble and decorated with carvings, pillars, and more red velvet curtains, in keeping with the rest of the building. I was fixated on a large gold clock that hung in the center of the front wall, above the justices. Our five minutes were up very quickly, and we were quietly escorted out so the next group could come in.

After retrieving my bag from the locker room, I left the building through the large main doors that looked out over the Capitol building.

The view of the Capitol from the front steps of the Supreme Court

The view of the Capitol from the front steps of the Supreme Court

I took a moment just to soak it in. I've been to D.C. a million times, but I rarely stop and think about how many decisions happen here. D.C. is so intimately involved in the laws and justice of our nation, and yet at times it all feels so far away.

So close to justice and yet so far away. Sounds like a good idea for a novel.