We were fortunate to have the opportunity to observe the Supreme Court of the United States in session this past Winter Break. The visit was surreal mixed with a dash of reality. For a law student, the justices on the Supreme Court exist in a world of their own, handing down opinions which become the stuff of casebooks and legal lore. However, after visiting the court we were reminded the Court is made up of people too.
We arrived at the bottom of the Court steps around 6:00 a.m. where a line had already formed. We began conversing with a couple in front of us and soon learned that they were the parents of Peter Stris, one of the attorneys who was arguing his case before the Supreme Court that day. At 8:30 a.m. we went through security and entered the building. At 9:00 a.m. those observing formed another line for final seating inside the Supreme Court. At 9:30 a.m. we checked our coats, passed another security checkpoint, and were seated in the Courtroom.
The Supreme Court public session began promptly at 10:00 a.m. and continued until approximately 12:15 p.m. The most striking visual as the Justices took their seats on the bench was Justice Ginsburg's unoccupied chair. Justice Ginsburg, who had not missed oral arguments in more than 25 years, was recovering from surgery for lung cancer. Court began with the admission of new members to the Court Bar facilitated by Chief Justice Roberts. Next, Justice Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court’s newest justice, issued his first Supreme Court opinion writing for a unanimous court in an arbitration dispute case. Justice Thomas issued another opinion of the Court shortly after Justice Kavanaugh.
The cases heard by the Court were Herrera v. Wyoming (17-532) and Fourth Estates Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, LLC (17-571). The issue in Herrera was whether an 1868 federal treaty right to hunt on the “unoccupied lands of the United States” permitted the present-day criminal conviction of a Crow Tribe of Indians member who engaged in subsistence hunting for his family. The question in Fourth Estate was whether “registration of [a] copyright claim” is complete under 17 U.S.C. § 411(a) when the copyright holder delivers the required application, fees, and materials to the copyright office, or only once the copyright office has acted on that application.
Observing oral arguments at the highest level was an inspiring and educational experience. The crisp presentations peppered with practical questions by the Justices was something to behold in person. The dialogue between the attorneys and the Justices was at points tense and other times a down-to-earth conversation about why a case should be decided one way versus another. We valued the chance to see the gestures and expressions of the Justices because it made the Justices more personable and relatable. The Justices were comfortable showing their personalities, which made the Court seem less distant. Following the arguments, we were able to meet and shake hands with Peter Stris, the attorney arguing the Fourth Estate case and son of the parents we had met while waiting in line.
Observing the Supreme Court provided insight into the people and personalities behind the published Opinions of the Supreme Court. We hope that other law students and the greater public take advantage of the opportunity to observe the Supreme Court in person. Simply put, it is an unfiltered look into the forefront of the great American experiment.