Washington, D.C., part 2: Choosing the SCOTUS arguments and when to arrive

(Just started reading? See part 1.)

If I was to combine a trip with a visit to family for Easter, I was limited to arguments in April. One sitting stood out as particularly interesting: the April 18 sitting in which Tapia v. United States and Microsoft v. i4i Limited Partnership would be argued. Tapia concerned the permissibility of considering in-prison rehabilitative programs during sentencing — not an issue of particular interest to me. But Microsoft concerned patents, which are certainly relevant to anyone in the software industry. It made a good fit: my weekend was chosen.

The US Capitol at night from Constitution Avenue, northeast of Capitol Hill
02:17: The Capitol as seen on the walk to the Court

Supreme Court oral arguments are open to anyone who arrives “early enough”, which depends on the interest level of the cases being argued. Tapia, as a sentencing case not touching a contentious issue like the death penalty, was low-interest. But “the showcase intellectual property case of the year” might well draw a moderate crowd. And I knew from a Mozillian who’d attended Bilski v. Kappos, the last major patent case before the Court, that arriving at 22:00 the day before a patent case could be good for a spot near the end of public seating. (Huge caveat: the other arguments that day concerned juvenile life imprisonment without possibility of parole.)

The Capitol dome
02:18: The Capitol dome

Based on one suggestion of 05:00 for “mid-major” cases (which I suspected Microsoft to be) and the effort I was making just to get to D.C., I decided to err heavily on the side of caution by waking up at 1:00. I would take a shower, get dressed in a suit purchased Friday (Visa flagged it as a fraudulent transaction, and I think they were on to something), and walk forty minutes to the Supreme Court. Better to get less sleep but be guaranteed to see the argument than to gamble and lose after making such an effort to even have a chance to see it.

The Capitol dome and the south wing of the Capitol building
02:34: The Capitol from the east, between it and the Supreme Court

Next time: sitting in line for the arguments.


  1. I went to see arguments some 4 or 5 years ago for the interstate wine shipping case (that was what sounded interesting when I was in DC for a conference). I was too late to get permanent seating, but did get in on the temp seating in the far back which they rotate out every 5 minutes. However, there weren’t any other people behind me at the time, so I was able to stay for some 25 minutes. It was interesting. Though I was able to understand a some things, the discussion very quickly gets lost in legal shorthand, such as a justice asking how this or that doesn’t violate Random case name. And if you don’t know what Random case name was about, you have no idea what point they’re trying to make. Made me understand what my brother meant (engineer) when he read my biochemistry thesis title and pointed out that he could understand what the individual words meant, but had no idea what they meant when put together.

    Comment by Hanspeter — 24.04.11 @ 17:06

  2. That must have been Granholm v. Heald — sounded like another interesting case, and perhaps slightly easier to approach because the text in question was much more constitutional than statutory.

    I haven’t gone back to read the transcripts yet to see how well my memory worked, but to a good extent that jibes with my recollection of, and experience during, the arguments. Some of the questions were more prudentially oriented, i.e. what will happen if we permitted this. Those didn’t require particular knowledge to understand. Without access to references to the statutes and cited cases, however, yeah, I did only about half keep track of things. It also didn’t help that I was going on a night of less than four hours of sleep. I’d hoped to avoid that, but at the last minute I just couldn’t get the sleep schedule adjusted to make that possible.

    Comment by Jeff — 24.04.11 @ 17:25

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