It was about 8:30 in the morning on Thursday 28 June 2012, and it was already climbing from the eighties to the nineties (around thirty in Celsius and growing). The suffocating humidity was apparent from the moment I wandered out of Union Station toward Capitol Hill, knowing from a glance at Google Maps the night before that the Supreme Court building was in that same general direction. As part of my summer fellowship, I had been told to go to the Supreme Court steps that day to find anyone from the disability community and wait with them for SCOTUS's ruling on the Affordable Care Act.
I spent close to forty-five minutes wandering through the cacophonous crowds, wading through a sea of Tea Party protesters who I later learned were accompanied by Michele Bachmann. There were signs and coordinated t-shirts both for and against the ACA, with one particularly creative Republican t-shirt reading "Correction Day: November 6, 2012." (I politely declined when offered.) Hundreds, possibly thousands, of people had crowded on and around the Supreme Court front steps, spilling across the street and in a few blocks in both directions, where a line to gain access to the courtroom itself snaked for several blocks--many waiting in line had camped overnight for a chance to make it inside.
The heat was stifling, and the humidity soaked my shirt. I've had some pretty awful experiences with heat exhaustion and heat stroke, so I knew my body was approaching its limits. I had been unsuccessful in locating the middle-aged disability rights activist in a chair who I'd been told would be there, and I desperately needed to be in an air-conditioned location to prevent the onset of migraine, severe dehydration, and other dangerous symptoms of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. (Been there, done that, didn't particularly feel inclined to repeat it.)
I excuse-me'd past the amorphous group of libertarians and approached the bottom of the steps, where there were several police or security officers. "Excuse me, can I go inside the building?" I asked.
"That's a line to go into the courtroom. The end of the line is all the way back there." He pointed, and I could see the line wrapping for several blocks.
I shook my head. "No, I just want to go inside the building, like the main lobby. Can I do that?"
"Yes, you can go inside the building, but you can't go inside the courtroom."
"Okay, thanks. Where do I go to do that?" I asked. He indicated another line on the left-hand side of the courthouse. I thanked him and headed in that direction. Before I could make it, another officer stopped me at the steps, and asked where I was going. "The officer over there told me to get into this line to go inside the building," I said, pointing in the general direction of the first officer. The second officer nodded and let me continue.
I came to stand behind a few other people, more than four, but not more than ten, waiting in line to pass under a covered entrance into the Supreme Court building. From brief exchanges with the people in line, I quickly realized that I had somehow been ushered into a line of people who were going to go into the courtroom. "You shouldn't tell people how you got in this line," said the young woman in front of me. "You're very lucky. Some people camped out all night to get in this line." When they finally let us into the building after a few minutes of waiting in the rather short line, I welcomed the reprieve of the air conditioning. (I had successfully predicted that the building would be air-conditioned.)
We passed through two rounds of security. The first was pretty standard. Our bags and all metal items go onto the conveyor belt or in little trays to go through an x-ray machine, while we passed through a standing metal detector. (I successfully managed to not set off the metal detector. Very proud.) At the second round of security, we had to check all of our bags and electronic devices in metal lockers and a coat room. (I had to shell out a quarter to put my laptop into one of the metal lockers. I think it was worth it.) Ladies were permitted to take purses, but absolutely no electronic devices whatsoever would be allowed inside the courtroom. All spectators were allowed to take a notepad and a writing implement, so I grabbed the little notepad and a pen from my bag before checking my belongings.
(I did, however, check-in and post to Facebook as we were walking up the stairs a few minutes before I left my phone in the locker.)
There was one final check before going into the courtroom. Security hand-searched all purses. I had left my "Stop the Torture! Occupy JRC" button from the National Day of Action on June 2 pinned to my purse, and the security officer told me I couldn't have that. I had forgotten about the button, and I asked whether I could put it inside the purse. She insisted that I couldn't have it, and while I was asking whether I could leave it on the table and return for it, she disposed of it. (I did get a replacement within two days from the wonderfully talented and dedicated Emily Titon.)
I was waved through and I waited at the arched entryway to the chambers. Another security officer chastised me for standing too close to the entryway and asked me to take a few steps back. I waited for less than two minutes before I was retrieved and escorted inside, ushered to a seat at the very back of the courtroom beside one of the looming columns. Once left there, I reached with my hand and ran my palm for a few minutes along the cool marble. Directly in front of me, I could see the red curtains where the justices would enter. The one to the far-right (audience's perspective) was askew. I resisted the temptation to leap over the bar and adjust it.
It was probably about 9:30 or a little afterward, and the justices were scheduled to open court at ten. There were well over one hundred people inside, possibly around two hundred, packed neatly in benches and in chairs that had probably been taken inside the courtroom for the specific purpose of accommodating the large number of spectators. Hushed conversations gradually grew in volume until a security officer would shush everyone, repeating the process. One of the security officers behind me remarked to another that they were going to try to cram another fifty people into the courtroom. I discovered that the young woman to my left was also a Georgetown student--Hoya Saxa!
A minute or two later, two other people and I were motioned by one of the officers and ushered closer to the front. I was seated now in a chair beside one of the benches, maybe six or eight rows away from the bar, but definitely much closer than I had been before. I shared a brief conversation with the man next to me, who was a law student.
Then, there was a jarring, high-pitched buzz, the justices were announced, and the entire room immediately fell silent as we stood. When we were seated again, I could see all nine of them in their black robes at the front, and the Marshal began to call, "Hear ye, hear ye, 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."
Thus launched one of the most bizarre experiences of my entire life. Partway through Chief Justice Roberts's introduction of all three cases for which the Supreme Court would issue rulings, I decided that I better start paying attention, so I flipped to a blank page of my pad and began to draw.
The first case was United States v. Alvarez, in the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of the Stolen Valor Act, which criminalizes the fraudulent claim of receiving military decorations or honors. Assuming I understood correctly what I was hearing, the Supreme Court struck the Stolen Valor Act as unconstitutional, with Chief Justice Roberts citing the widespread outcry over the original defendant's lies as proof that such fraudulent claims do not tarnish the value or respect given to military decorations. I did not understand the context of the second case's ruling.
The Affordable Care Act, probably what everyone or nearly everyone inside wanted to hear about, was the third and final case in the Supreme Court's last session for another few months. Chief Justice Roberts went first, followed by two dissents, one read by Justice Kennedy and one read by Justice Ginsberg. (Michelle Bachmann, who had been inside, rather rudely stood and abruptly left in the middle of Justice Ginsberg's dissent, in order to give a rallying speech outside to the Tea Party folks.)
Once we were dismissed, I meandered back to the room to fetch my belongings, and headed outside. I managed to snap a quick picture of the inside of the main entryway of the building with my phone before being yelled at for taking a picture. Outside, there were people everywhere, some celebrating and others vehemently protesting. I was struck again by the heat. It took close to a half hour to locate Emily Titon -- Shain Neumeier, who was there, was unable to find us, and agreed to meet at the Metro station for the APSE Conference to grab lunch before returning to the conference -- and in the meantime, two Georgetown students also interning over the summer caught my attention and waved.
A journalist with a Vietnamese group overhead me mentioning that I'd been inside and asked me a few questions on film, remarking afterward that I sounded "very knowledgeable." (I pretty much parroted what the justices had said.) I was standing directly behind two protesters, one dressed in teal doctor's scrubs and an Obama mask, and the other dressed in an all black Grim Reaper robe with a metallic mask and (hopefully fake) scythe, on the stairs while looking for Emily. I was beginning to experience symptoms of oncoming heat exhaustion again.
All the while, I was about to fall over in shock. When I'd looked at my phone after retrieving it, I had been flooded with Facebook notifications. Even my dad emailed me a news article published halfway through the ruling asking if I knew about it. (I said audibly, "Yes, Dad, I know. I was just there.") One Facebook comment bemoaned the false news report that the bill had been entirely stricken, followed several minutes later by the same individual noting the error in reporting with relief. And when I made it back to the office on Friday following the APSE conference, I was asked to write this for the NCWD/Youth blog, also published today.
And that, friends, is how I managed to not die of heat stroke and witnessed history, all in one day.
I give up trying to align the below images and text. The HTML code won't work, and I can't move things around on the computer screen in the compose mode, and urgh. Hover over the images for the correct "alt" text. Or guess based on the descriptions which go with which. I GIVE UP. BLOGGER IS SUCH AN INACCESSIBLE PLATFORM.
The first of the three drawings/notes in my notepad. The image is of five people. From left to right: A woman in profile faced to the viewer's left, with bangs and dark hair; a man wearing a suit, collared shirt, and tie, smiling without teeth; a man with a neatly trimmed, short beard and mustache, appearing serious; a man with a few inches long beard and mustache, a receding hairline, and a polo shirt; and a woman wearing a Muslim hijab headscarf. There are illegible notes below that.
The second of the three drawings/notes in my notepad. The image is of two people. On the left, a man with a long beard and no mustache, curly hair and beard, round glasses, wearing a short-sleeved shirt, and who has hairy arms. He appears to be smiling. On the right, a woman with long, straight hair, and evenly cut bangs, dressed in a tunic-style top, who also appears to be smiling. Beside and below that are illegible notes.
The interior of the main entryway to the building. Appears majestic, with raised ceiling and various people below.
The third of the three drawings/notes in my notepad. The image is of two people. On the left, a woman with shoulder length, wavy-ish hair, wearing a styled suit-jacket and collared blouse and a pendant. On the right, a man with carefully combed light-colored hair, square glasses, wearing a v-neck sweater vest, a collared shirt, and a tie. Above that are the words "'invalid' really??"