- The public is welcome back into the courtroom for the term that opens October 3, 2022, but the Court will continue to offer an audio feed as well. For those options, see “online access”.
A few people have asked for more on the “nuts and bolts” of attending oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court. What follows may be overboard, but useful for those of you who want to know all the details in advance.
You should dress nicely, but remembering that you will be standing in the elements for hours. A suit or formal dress is unnecessary, but sweats are out of bounds too.
From Foggy Bottom, take the orange or blue Metro line to Capitol South (which has only one exit). As you come up the escalator, you will be facing north on First Street, NE. Head in that direction – you’ll be walking up a slight hill. You will pass the Cannon House Office Building on your left in the first block, and at the next intersection you will see the US Capitol (or maybe the fence surrounding it, depending on the status of the frequent construction projects) ahead of you and to the left, and the main Library of Congress building on your right. Keep going one more block, and the Supreme Court will be on your right, just past the LoC.
You will see people waiting on the lower plaza, which is the line you should join. When a large crowd is expected, the Supreme Court Police often hand out numbered cards. This is to allow you to leave for a brief period of time and return without causing any concerns that someone is skipping the line. You will not be given more than one number – don’t bother asking for one for your friend! You risk losing your place in line if you leave for an extended period of time. However, feel free to leave to use the restroom, get a cup of coffee, etc.
So when should I get in line?
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 only 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 reallydon’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.
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 and there is the option for a walk through for a few minutes (which is really unsatisfying!).
Once you’re in line
The Supreme Court building opens at 7:30 for access to the cafeteria and restrooms. The police will direct you to one of the side entrances. These entrances are used by Court employees and members of the Supreme Court bar, so expect a small line and be ready to pass through a metal detector.
Options for food and restrooms prior to 7:30 are limited and further away. Union Station is a few blocks further up First Street. There are also cafés in the Capitol Hill neighborhood; try along Pennsylvania Ave away from the Capitol, but you might have to go a few blocks.
They will start letting people into the building around 9:00. You will go through one set of metal detectors (to screen for weapons) and then be directed to the check room and the lockers. You can check coats, bags and umbrellas for free, or you can rent a locker for a quarter. Get rid of everything – as you would expect, no electronic devices are allowed, but also no reading materials, large coats, or anything other than what you are wearing. I like to print out copies of the briefs in the case and bring a newspaper for the wait, and then just throw them away when it is time to go into the courtroom.
You will then get in another line for a second metal detector, to screen for phones and other things that you should have checked between the screenings. Finally, they will direct you to the Courtroom and the Marshals will point you to your seat.
In the courtroom
At 10:00, you will hear a buzzer and gavel. Stand up. As the Justices enter, the clerk will announce that the Court is in session (“Oyez, oyez, oyez!” – latin for, basically, listen up!). If the Court has resolved any cases it heard earlier in the term, then the author of the majority opinion will announce the decision and briefly summarize the opinion. Also, there will be some new members of the Supreme Court bar. The Chief Justice will call upon their “sponsor,” who will formally ask the Court to admit the new member. As soon as this is completed, the clerk will call the first case.
Each side gets 30 minutes. The first person to go (the “petitioner” – the one who lost in the court below and therefore brought the matter to this Court) usually will reserve a few minutes for rebuttal. When the hour is up, the clerk will call the next case. There is usually a minute of shuffling as a few people leave after the first case, but it is very limited and brief.
Pre-pandemic, it was extremely unusual for arguments to go much over the scheduled time. When telephone arguments required other adjustments to form, the arguments started running long — sometimes roughly twice the scheduled time. That trend of longer arguments seems to have continued now that they’re back in-person.
Of course, you must remain quiet throughout the arguments. Some of the Justices like to make an occasional joke, but the laughter is quick and subdued. The room itself is a massive echo chamber, so even though the Justices use microphones, the audience needs silence. I also encourage you to look at this guide, which includes a seating chart (the Justices do not sit behind name plaques).
I trust this is everything you could want to know about attending oral arguments at the Supreme Court, but do not hesitate to ask if you have other questions. It really is an exciting and fascinating experience, and I look forward to hearing your reactions.