- The public is welcome back into the courtroom as of the term that opened October 3, 2022, but the Court will continue to offer an audio feed as well. For those options, see “online access”.
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. The first fifty people can be quite assured that they’ll get in (barring something extremely unusual). After that, it can depend on that day’s special arrangements. There used to be an option to pass through for a few minutes but the Court has stated only that “the three-minute line is temporarily suspended.”
So how early do you need to get there?
This is hard to answer because we are in a new era — I am posting this before the October 31, 2022, arguments on affirmative action, which will be only the fifth day in the history of the Court that people could either attend in person or listen in live. Before Covid, public access to arguments hadn’t been suspended since 1918 (for the Spanish Flu), when teleconferencing hadn’t been invented.
I had students attend arguments (via the public line) in three of the first four such days earlier this month, so from that I can offer a few observations. The lines seem to have become much more reasonable than they were pre-pandemic, when it was not uncommon in major cases that the last person to get in for arguments started waiting in line in the morning of the day before. But the lines are still forming early and they could start forming even earlier!
Arriving by 5am was okay in the first two weeks, but I would get there at least a couple hours before that for the affirmative action cases. The Voting Rights Act arguments on October 4 may be the closest comparator in terms of public interest — my student who got in line at 4:45 made it, but only about ten people behind her got in. What you really don’t want is to get there at 4am and still not make it! Much better to get there as early as you can manage, and not be worried about that.
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.
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.)