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.
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.
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.
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).
Compared with CJ Rehnquist, CJ Roberts is more lenient with giving an extra minute or two on occasion, but the times are still pretty strict. Even on a day with lots of preliminary matters, the argument on the first case will start by 10:15. Thus, the second case will be over, and you can expect to be on your way out of the courtroom, by 12:30.
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.