Visiting the Supreme Court

(This turned out to be a novel so if you want the abridged version scroll down to the bottom of this post, after my signature.)

It was a cold, damp morning. The girls and I caught the 8:45 bus in our neighborhood that dropped us off at the Pentagon Metro. Several stops and one train change later we emerged from the metro underground into DC, two blocks from the Capitol. Our destination was not the Capitol though. Across the street from the famous white dome that tops the legislative branch sits the house of the judicial branch. Our destination was the Supreme Court.

Reagan learned about the three branches of government, and specifically the Supreme Court, in history several weeks ago. Not being one to pass up a field trip opportunity I immediately began doing research on how to visit and maybe even see the justices in action. The Supreme Court website not only listed information about visiting but also gave the schedule of arguments that would be presented throughout the year. The justices are not hearing cases every day the court is open.

As we approached the west side of the building, walking up First Street, we saw that a line had already formed. Men and women, predominantly dressed in black, formed a somewhat single-file line waiting patiently in their place to be let in. It struck me at how opposite it was to the waiting crowd at the National Gallery of Art before a children’s event I had taken Reagan to. It was every man for himself then and not too safe for young children. I appreciated the business-like attitude and the desire to follow American social norms in this group. (See below how nice that line looks.)

Although the temperature was in the low 40s there was little wind, and after surviving 4° temps in Punxsutawney for hours neither the girls nor I was complaining. We weren’t sure how long we were going to have to wait before going in so the girls bided their time by playing with the melting snow that was still in dirty piles along the edge of the steps leading up to the entrance of the court.

I busied myself with noticing the women in the smaller crowds that would form around us. Most were young and seemed to know each other. I’m guessing they’re in the city either attending school or working an internship. Did they all want to become lawyers? Judges? They were in special groups that had been granted access to hear the arguments today. Neither skirts nor pants were favored by a majority and it seemed as if the only two choices of heel height were flat and ridiculous. I made a mental note that plain black stilettos look silly on a woman who is trying to look professional, especially when it’s a cold, wet winter day. I noticed maybe two cute pairs of high-heeled shoes. The ladies wearing flats were obviously more practical, but I also made a mental note that if I were to wear flats with a short skirt the shoes must be killer awesome. I also noticed how God made calves in every shape and size. I could tell one woman was a runner–and that she should have been wearing dark hose with her short skirt. Pale, chiseled calves just don’t look very good in heels. And it’s not very smart to have bare legs in 40 degree weather. It’s just my opinion. I wondered if they took notice of the mother with two children standing near them, wearing jeans and wellies and if they thought it was an appropriate outfit for a visit to the highest court in the land. Long johns probably never crossed their minds.

The long, well-formed line was for the people who wanted to sit in on the first of the two one hour-long arguments that would take place today. I would have liked to have been in that line, but I knew the limitations of a three year-old*. We were waiting for the line to form that would include the people who just wanted to go in for a three- to five-minute segment. A police officer finally formed that line and we were on our way through to the security and coat check.

I had little doubt that Ashlyn could be good for a short, three-minute segment. As much as I like to say she’s strong willed, she’s pretty obedient and most of the time seems to understand when she needs to be quiet. I had pumped her full of fruit snacks and a sucker too, so she was in a tolerable mood. We were waiting our turn for our bag to be scanned so I made sure both girls understood the rules–it’s always better to outline the rules ahead of time so you’re not having to yell at them explain in a loud whisper in the middle of whatever event you’ve decided to dare to attend with kids. Both girls understood, because there was really only one main rule, and they had heard it before, BE QUIET. I even tried to make it sound better by telling them to be thinking about questions they’d have for me after our visit.

I may have had little doubt about Ashlyn’s potential but one of the docents, or security guards, or whatever his title was, certainly did question. “Do you have someone to stay out with her? She’s too young to go in.” My heart sank. “You mean to tell me I left my house at 8:45 in the cold, damp morning to catch a bus to catch two trains, to walk close to three blocks with thirty pounds of kid and lunch sack, to wait over an hour to see the Supreme Court Justices in order for you to tell me I am out of luck today?” That’s only what I wanted to say. I did say that we were homeschoolers and that my husband works so there is no one to watch her and, oh yeah! the website doesn’t give an age limit as to who’s allowed into the court room! He did seem torn between his duties to keep the Supreme Court from becoming the People’s Court and allowing a poor little ol’ dumb mother who traipsed here the opportunity to lay eyeballs on what she came for.

He made a big show about telling the X-ray machine security guard, two other officials of the court and then two body guard type girls within the chambers that he was specifically letting me in with my little illegal attachment solely on the basis that any one of them could throw me out the very nanosecond she started to cause a scene. I remained grateful and thankful to all of them because we hadn’t proven ourselves yet.

The courtroom was smaller than I had imagined and decked out in red draperies. There were giant red curtains everywhere. The three-minute watchers were hidden behind sets of these curtains with only about a two feet-wide window provided by the slight opening between two. I honestly was glad to see that we were hidden. We were seated as close to the doors as possible; I had Ashlyn on my lap. Reagan had a brochure with pictures and names of the nine justices.

The case being argued during our visit was Holder V. Humanitarian Law Project (and the reciprocal HLP V. Holder). The questioning had to do with terrorists, but I don’t even remember what the questions were, which is a shame. Next time I will bring the only two things allowed in the courtroom: a notepad and writing utensil. The  main two justices asking questions while we were in there for our three minutes were Antonin Scalia and Sonia Sotomayor. I would point to the picture of the person talking and then point up to them so Reagan could know who was speaking. Her view was even less desirable since she was so short in her chair. Ashlyn mouthed one or two things to me and then whispered that she couldn’t see. I let her stand on my lap.

Wanting to make a good impression, and not wanting to press our luck, I decided to call it quits and leave the courtroom before we were asked to leave. I thanked everyone we came into contact with again and vowed (to myself) that I would be back to hear a full hour’s argument. On our way back to the metro we stopped in the Library of Congress, since it is right next door. We couldn’t stay long though because Ashlyn’s demeanor here was completely opposite of what it had been at the Supreme Court. I will go back to explore that building as well, and probably without kids as well.



*How in the world do you hyphenate the term “three year old”? ‘Three’ modifies ‘year’ and the combination ‘three year’ modifies ‘old’. And the term itself, all three words, is used as a noun. I googled it and came up with every option: three year old, three-year old, three year-old and three-year-old. In fact, after looking that up I became paranoid with all of the hyphenated phrases that I either should or should not have in this post.

ABRIDGED VERSION (It’s hard for me to focus on other’s long posts right now, so I sympathize with you if you are just scrolling down to read this version.)

We went to the Supreme Court today! The justices were hearing arguments in two cases and we wanted to get in to watch about three minutes of one of the arguments. We had to wait outside for over an hour in 40° weather but we didn’t mind. We almost didn’t get in because one of the workers said Ashlyn was too young. We finessed our way into his heart and he decided to let us in. We were in the back of the chambers, which were smaller than I expected, and we were behind red curtains. Justices Scalia and Sotomayor were the two main question askers while we were in there. Ash did very well and Reagan got a kick out of matching the faces on her brochure with the people sitting behind the bench.

After we left we stopped in next door at the Library of Congress. BEAUTIFUL! Didn’t stay long because Ash was getting tired. I plan on going back to both to spend more time at each–most likely without kids.

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4 thoughts on “Visiting the Supreme Court

  1. Awww … they are too cute. And Ash even got to see the Supremes in action. Go Ash!

    That sounds like an awesome trip. I’m jealous!

    Oh, the correct answer is 3-year-old … at least if you’re a former journalist with more than a decade of AP style drilled into your head. (AP says that you always use numbers for ages and you always hyphenate modifiers turned nouns.)

  2. I read the abridged version because I am off to bed… but that rocks you got to sit in… you are such an inspiration/rock star mom…I love how you get out… I wish I knew more of what was going on here to do that. How fun would that be. I need a translator!

    • Vicki says:

      I’m sure there is some kind of website on what’s happening around Budapest. The site could be translated in Google, but once you get to whatever is going on…well, yeah, you might need one then 🙂

      I’m looking forward to going back to the Supreme Court either on my own or just with Reagan so that we can sit through a whole hour’s argument!

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