March 23, 2012

Sidewalk Sitting

Tuesday morning, I waited in line outside of the US Supreme Court for almost eight hours. I arrived at 4:30 am and sat down on the sidewalk curb next to a co-worker. The Supreme Court has perfectly trimmed shrubbery; I can say that with authority. I passed about 40 people as I made my way to the back of the line. About 30 of them arrived prior to 2:30 am, some with sleeping bags and food supplies. I couldn't help but think we looked like a twisted form of Occupy Wall Street in suits. It rained lightly on and off for the next couple of hours and I waited for the sky behind the Capitol dome to change to morning colors.

At 6:15 am, one of my friends texted me, "Be safe out there! The weather woke me up and it sounds pretty nasty." As if on cue, the sky lit up with a flash of light. We spent the next hour watching lightening bolts in the distance and then watching the streams of rain pour down the side of the umbrella. The lights illuminating the dome of the Capitol turned off around 7am and the sky behind the dome turned a cloudy gray. The rain eased up, but the line ahead of us became saturated with bodies. Unfair place-holding resulted in an increase in our line number. We went from about 40 to about 60 then 69 and 70 by the time a guard handed out numbers and moved the line to the steps of the Supreme Court.

At 8 am, they let in the first 50 people. So we stood. And waited. To see how many would enter in the next round. At 9:45 they let in another 10. There was a chance we would be able to enter for the second argument at 11:00 am. So we stood. Then sat. And waited. To see how many would enter in the next round. By 10:30 am everything began to get hazy. Conversation slowed down, my brain stopped thinking in complete sentences. Perhaps It stopped thinking at all. I caught myself zoned-out, staring at the Senate Office Buildings, trying to remember the feel of the cool air-conditioning after a long summer's walk. Trying to remember the smooth floors, the hallway lighting, the carpet and wood in the judiciary committee room. Not being able to remember much of that at all, actually. A life time ago, really.

At 11:45 am, one of the guards approached us quickly and we all sprung up. They had enough room for 15 more of us to hear the last part of the last argument. We went through security, bound up the stairs, threw our things into lockers and waited, again, to walk into the courtroom. I had only been in the Supreme Court once, a few years ago, and my memories had faded. I had forgotten how strong the pillars stood, how high the ceiling towered, how even the floor seemed embedded with authority. How small it could all make you feel.

They opened the courtroom door around noon. After almost 8 hours of waiting, we finally walked into the courtroom.

I had been in there before, briefly, on a tour. It was smaller than I remembered. The Justices sat in their chairs this time and a rush of adrenaline hit me as I took my seat. The State was presenting its case. I disagreed so strongly with the argument that I had a hard time not dismissing it as illogical, nonsensical, and weak. Weak as in failing to do anything other than blindly follow authority. I'm going to leave the legal critique for another person in another venue, but I will say this much:

I have come so far. Without realizing it, I have come so far. My Con Law I professor made me nearly hyperventilate. I avoided him in the hallway because I was terrified eye-contact meant he would call on me in class. I re-read cases multiple before class because I didn't know which footnotes were the important ones.* I struggled with the Dormant Commerce Clause. I struggled with many clauses. Some days, I thought the opinions were certainly written in a foreign language. (Which yes, law is.) However, I sat in the US Supreme Court on Tuesday and respectfully disagreed with the State's argument. I understood every word. I knew the weight behind each sentence. I have carried the weight of each concept. Juvenile. Life. Without. Parole. Rehabilitation. Public Safety. Accountability. Intent. Adolescent. I have come so far from those textbook pages and multi-colored highlighters. I have come so far from diverting my eyes to avoid the Socratic Method. I have become fluent in a language that allows me to stand up for my ideals.

We listened to the State's argument and the brief rebuttal of the Defender, who used the opportunity to present closing remarks. We stood up and exited the courtroom with the rest of the crowd. We walked down the stairs and squinted into the sun and I wished my hair didn't feel so dirty.

I texted a friend who also happens to be a housemate and took her up on her suggestion to get lunch. She works in a House Office Building, so I stood in line for security. I remembered this time. The July heat, the weight of the suit jacket over my arm, the cold air streaming out the doors, the minutes in line hoping they didn't amount to too late. I remember the rush of energy that came with walking through the metal detectors, putting on the suit jacket and heels, and clickclacking down the hall. The last time I was in this building we met with a Representative and then flyered the whole building. My feet hurt and I promised myself that graduating law school would mean next time I would only have to participate in the first half of the day's activity. High hopes, I still had. But on Tuesday, I met my friend and we walked to the cafeteria for lunch together. I apologized for my lack of coherent sentences and tried to wipe the goofy grin off my face. The past and present wrapped up together can get complicated, but it can also make me deleriously happy.

After lunch, I called my mom as I walked past the fountain, the Capitol building, and up Louisiana Avenue towards Union Station. How many times that summer did I walk the very same sidewalks? Gushing excitement and joy in the sunshine, saying this. is. it. That summer, it was almost every day. A lot has happened since that summer. In the world and in my world. But still. I called my mom and gushed. In the sunshine, walking long-lost steps, I gushed. These days are fleeting, I know, but I earned them. I waited the eight hours. And longer.

[If you are interested in the substance of the juvenile cases, the briefs and oral argument transcripts are on the US Supreme Court website. Media coverage includes the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN, among others.]

*Dear 1Ls, Buy a hornbook. It's not cheating. I promise. It's a lifesaver. And a memo I got too late in law school. Love, Emily. P.S. Footnote 4 in Carolene Products is The Important One.

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