The highest tribunal in the nation, the Supreme Court is charged with the power of "judicial review": deciding whether actions of Congress, the president, the states, and lower courts, in other words, of all branches of government and government officials, are in accordance with the Constitution, and with applying the Constitution's enduring principles to novel situations and a changing country. Arguably the most powerful people in the nation, the Court's chief justice and eight associate justices hear only about 75 to 100 of the most vital cases of the 8,000 to 9,000 petitions for writ certiorari submitted to the Court each year. The Court's rulings are final, reversible only by an Act of Congress.
Hard to believe, but the Supreme Court -- in existence since 1789 -- did not have its own building until 1935. The justices met in New York, Philadelphia, and assorted nooks of the Capitol until they finally got their own place. Architect Cass Gilbert designed the stately Corinthian marble palace that houses the Court today. Best known for his skyscrapers, like New York's 761-foot-high Woolworth Building, Gilbert was an interesting choice for the Supreme Court commission in a city where Congress restricts building height to 160 feet.
You'll have plenty of time to admire the exterior of this magnificent structure if you're in town when the Court is in session and decide to try seeing a case being argued because -- yup, you guessed it -- you have to wait in line (sometimes for hours) on the front plaza of the building. But do try! The experience is totally worth the wait. People queue in every city for tickets to concerts and sports events. But only in Washington does a wait in line grant one the privilege of watching and listening to the country's nine foremost legal experts nimbly and intensely dissect the merits of both sides of an argument, whose decisions can affect profoundly both the person and the nation. The standing-in-line itself brings with it the same sort of thrill that builds in collective anticipation of a great performance.
Here's what you need to know: Starting the first Monday in October and continuing through late April, the Court "sits" for 2 weeks out of every month to hear two to four arguments each day, Monday through Wednesday, from 10am to noon and 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.supremecourtus.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.
The justices may release opinions throughout the term, on every third Monday during the Supreme Court term and on argument days (if any opinions are ready). The opinions are delivered before the arguments begin. Mid-May to late June, you can attend brief sessions (about 15 min.) at 10am on Monday, when the justices release remaining orders and opinions for the term. Again, you must stand in line on the front plaza to enter the building.
Leave your cameras, recording devices, and notebooks at your hotel; they're not allowed in the courtroom. Note: But do bring quarters. Security procedures require you to leave all your belongings, including outerwear, purses, books, sunglasses, and so on, in a lower-level checkroom where there are coin-operated lockers that accept only quarters.
Once inside, pay close attention to the many rituals. At 10am, the marshal announces the entrance of the justices, and all present rise and remain standing while the justices take their seats (in high-backed, cushioned swivel chairs, by the way) following the chant: "The Honorable, the Chief Justice and Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court!" Unseen by the gallery is the "conference handshake"; following a 19th-century tradition symbolizing a "harmony of aims if not views," each justice shakes hands with each of the other eight when they assemble to go to the bench. The Court has a record before it of prior proceedings and relevant briefs, so each side is allowed only a 30-minute argument.
When the Court is not in session, you can tour the building and attend a free lecture in the courtroom about Court procedure and the building's architecture. Lectures are given every hour on the half-hour from 9:30am to 3:30pm. After the talk, explore the Great Hall and go down a flight of steps to see the 24-minute film on the workings of the Court. On the same floor is an exhibit highlighting the "History of High Courts Around the World," on display indefinitely. Allow about an hour to tour. A gift shop and a public cafeteria are open to the public.
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