On many days, the Supreme Court is the most exciting place to be in town. Beginning each annual session on the first Monday in October, the nine justices hear cases, later to render opinions that can dramatically affect every American. Visitors may attend these proceedings, in which lawyers representing opposing sides attempt to make a convincing case for their client, even as the justices interrupt repeatedly and question them sharply to clarify the constitutional principles at stake. It’s a grand show, fast-paced, sometimes heated, and always full of weighty import (the justices hear only about 100 of the most vital of the 10,000 or so petitions filed with the Court every year). The Court’s rulings are final, reversible only by an Act of Congress. And you, the visitor, get a close-up seat . . . if you’re lucky.
But even when the court isn’t in session, touring the building is still a worthwhile experience. During those periods, docents offer 30-minute lectures inside the Supreme Court chamber to introduce visitors of all ages to the Court’s judicial functions, the building’s history, and the architecture of the courtroom. Lectures take place every hour on the half-hour, beginning at 9:30am on days when the Court is not sitting and at a later time on Court days. You can also tour the building on your own. Architect Cass Gilbert, best known for his skyscrapers (such as New York’s 761-ft.-high Woolworth building), designed the stately Corinthian marble palace that houses the Court today. First, stop by the ground-floor information desk to pick up a helpful flyer, view exhibits, and watch a film on the workings of the Court. In fact, that short film is a good preliminary to the docent lecture, so you may want to time your visit accordingly.
Getting in to see a case being argued: Starting the first Monday in October and continuing through late April, the Court “sits” for 2 weeks out of every month to hear two 1-hour arguments each day Monday through Wednesday, from 10am to noon, with occasional afternoon sessions scheduled as necessary from 1 to 2 or 3pm. You can find out the specific dates and names of arguments in advance by calling the Supreme Court (tel. 202/479-3211) or by going to the website, www.supremecourt.gov, where the argument calendar and the “merits briefs” (case descriptions) are posted.
Plan on arriving at the Supreme Court at least 90 minutes in advance of a scheduled argument during the fall and winter, and as early as 3 hours ahead in March and April, when schools are often on spring break and students lengthen the line. (Dress warmly; the stone plaza is exposed and can be witheringly cold.) Controversial cases also attract crowds; if you’re not sure whether a particular case has created a stir, call the Court information line to reach someone who can tell you. The Court allots only about 150 first-come, first-served seats to the general public, but that number fluctuates from case to case, depending on the number of seats that have been reserved by the lawyers arguing the case and by the press. The Court police officers direct you into one line initially; when the doors finally open, you form a second line if you want to attend only 3 to 5 minutes of the argument. Seating begins at 9:30am for those attending the full argument and at 10am for those who want to catch just a few minutes.
The justices are always at work on their opinions following Court arguments, and release these completed opinions in the courtroom throughout the argument term, October through April, and into May and June. If you attend an oral argument, you may find yourself present as well for the release of a Supreme Court opinion, since the justices precede the hearing of new oral arguments with the announcement of their opinions on previously heard arguments, if any opinions are ready. What this means is, if you’re visiting the Court on a Monday in May or June, you won’t be able to attend an argument, but you might still see the justices in action, delivering an opinion, during a 10am, 15-minute session in the courtroom. To attend one of these sessions, you must wait in line on the plaza, following the same procedure outlined above.
Leave your cameras, recording devices, and notebooks at your hotel—they’re not allowed in the courtroom. Note: Do bring quarters. Security procedures require you to leave all your belongings, including outerwear, purses, books, sunglasses, and so on, in a cloak room where there are coin-operated lockers that accept only quarters.
- Elise Hartman Ford