Attending oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court is a singular experience, promising an opportunity to witness some of the finest advocacy and informed public debate on critical social issues. I strongly encourage my students to take advantage of this opportunity while living in Washington. However, some Supreme Court cases will involve rather arcane legal issues, so attending those arguments will be a less desirable experience for the observer who is not well versed in that area of law and the specific facts of the case. Scotusblog does an excellent job of surveying all upcoming cases, so on the front page, I limit myself to select cases that I particularly want to recommend to my current and former students
The Supreme Court returns from summer recess on the first Monday in October each year, and generally sits until early summer. They do not hear arguments every day, but all oral arguments are open to the public.
The US Supreme Court is located at 1 First Street, NE, which is directly opposite the Capitol Building. It is a short walk from the Capitol South Metro stop on the orange and blue lines.
On days when the Court is hearing oral arguments, there typically are two cases with a strict one-hour time slot for each, at 10:00 and 11:00. On rare occasions, there will be a third argument, which starts after the lunch break. Equally rarely, a scheduling issue may result in only one case being heard that day.
Seating is quite limited. Interesting cases can attract a crowd very early in the morning, and you should try to get there by 6:00 even for relatively low-interest cases. For abortion and other highly controversial cases, people will camp out the night before; you might try getting on the first Metro train that morning,but no guarantees. My general view is that if you’re going to set an alarm and drag yourself out of bed early anyway, you might as well make it as early as possible, so it won’t all be in vain. Lines at 3am seem to have become common, at least when the weather is not too bad. For the most high-profile cases, some people pay “line standers,” much to the consternation of everyone else. I’m hopeful the Court will do something about that, but for now, you have to expect lines to form the day before in some cases. (The Court did something about it for the lawyer line several years ago, but nothing yet for the public line.)
Feel free to bring reading materials for the wait, but know that most anything you bring cannot come into the courtroom. There is a free check room, or bring quarters for a locker. (Lockers are faster and easier to get to.)
If you want to hear the argument in either morning case, you should plan to sit through both. Although a few people leave after the first argument and others will be able to take their seats, this small number of seats will be filled by people who were in line from early that morning. If the case that interests you is heard first, I suggest that you sit through the next one anyway — you waited in line for hours, and might as well get the experience of hearing a second case while you are there. (There is also a line to go stand in the back for three minutes, but that will not be satisfying…)
You should follow the links I have provided or on scotusblog so you can read a news account or legal blog write-up, and perhaps some key documents filed in the case. You of course will not have time to read all the briefs, but at least glance at some of these resources to get a feel for the case and the types of arguments that are being made by each side. This will help you to understand the issues and get as much as possible out of attending the arguments. You should also take a look at this guide.
Enjoy – and let me know if you have any question before or after you attend!
(If you want even more information before attending, see this page.)