21.04.15

Police, force, and armed and violent disabled people: San Francisco v. Sheehan

Yesterday I began a series of posts discussing the Supreme Court cases I saw in my latest visit for oral arguments. Today I discuss San Francisco v. Sheehan

San Francisco v. Sheehan concerned a messy use of force by police in San Francisco in responding to a violent, mentally-ill person making threats with a knife — an unhappy situation for all. Very imprecisely, the question is whether the officers used excessive force to subdue an armed and violent, disabled suspect, knowing that suspect might require special treatment under the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Fourth Amendment while being arrested. (Of course, whatever baseline those laws require, police often should and will be held to a higher standard.)

Chief Justice Rehnquist, standing upon a white, blue-outlined Nevada, holding volume 530 of the US Reports
Chief Justice William Rehnquist, one of the other objects of the trip

The obvious prediction

Mildly-interested readers need know but two things to predict this case’s outcome. First, this case arose in the Ninth Circus Circuit: a court regularly with very outlier views. And not solely along the tired left-right axis: when the Court often summarily reverses the Ninth Circuit without even hearing argument, partisanship can play no role. Second, Sheehan must overcome qualified immunity, which for better and worse protects “all but the plainly incompetent” police against lawsuit. These facts typically guarantee San Francisco will win and Sheehan will lose.

That aside, one observation struck me. Stereotyping heavily, it’s surprising that San Francisco in particular would argue, to use overly-reductive descriptions, “for” police and “against” the disabled. Usually we’d assume San Francisco would stand by, not against, underprivileged minorities.

“Bait and switch”

That expectation makes this letter from advocacy groups requesting San Francisco abandon its appeal very interesting. At oral argument Justice Scalia interrupted San Francisco’s argument before it even started to bluntly charge the city with changing its argument, between its request for the Supreme Court to hear the case and when San Francisco presented its argument for why it should win — even calling it a “bait and switch”. Minutes later, Justice Sotomayor echoed his views (in more restrained terms).

When requesting Supreme Court review, San Francisco argued that the ADA “does not require accommodations for armed and violent suspects who are disabled” — during an arrest, all such suspects may be treated identically regardless of ability. In response the Court agreed to decide “whether Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires law enforcement officers to provide accommodations to an armed, violent, and mentally ill suspect” while bringing him into custody.

But San Francisco’s written argument instead argued, “Sheehan was not entitled to receive accommodations in her arrest under Title II of the [ADA]” because her armed violence “posed a direct threat in the reasonable judgment of the officers”. In other words, San Francisco had changed from arguing no armed and violent, disabled suspect deserved an ADA accommodation, to arguing Sheehan particularly deserved no ADA accommodation because she appeared to be a direct threat.

The San Francisco City Hall dome and building

The followup

Thus San Francisco’s argument derailed, on this and other points. Several minutes in Justice Kagan even prefaced a question with, “And while we are talking about questions that are not strictly speaking in the case,” to audience laughter. A Ninth-Circuit, plaintiff-friendly, appeal-by-the-government case is usually a strong bet for reversal, but San Francisco seems to have complicated its own case.

The Court could well dismiss this case as “improvidently granted”, preserving the lower court’s decision without creating precedent. Oral argument raised the possibility, but a month later it seems unlikely. San Francisco’s still likely to win, but the justices’ frustration with San Francisco’s alleged argument change might not bode well when San Francisco next wants the Court to hear a case.

Back to the letter

Again consider the letter urging San Francisco to abandon its appeal. Suppose the letter’s authors first privately requested San Francisco drop the case, resorting to open letter once those overtures failed.

But what if the letter wasn’t a complete failure? Could San Francisco have changed its argument to “split the baby”, protecting its officers and attempting to placate interest groups? The shift couldn’t have responded to just the letter, sent one day before San Francisco made its final argument. But it might have been triggered by prior behind-the-scenes negotiation.

This fanciful possibility requires that the open letter not be San Francisco’s first chance to hear its arguments. It further grants the letter’s authors extraordinary political power…yet too little to change San Francisco’s position. Occam’s Razor absolutely rejects this explanation. But if some involved interest group promptly tried to dissuade San Francisco, the letter might have been partially effective.

Final analysis

Are Justice Scalia’s and Sotomayor’s criticisms reasonable? I didn’t fully read the briefs, and I don’t know when it’s acceptable for a party to change its argument (except by settling the case). It appears to me that San Francisco changed its argument; my sense is doing so but claiming you didn’t is the wrong way to change one’s position. But I don’t know enough to be sure of either conclusion.

As I said yesterday, I didn’t fully prepare for this argument, so I hesitate to say too much. And frankly the messy facts make me glad I don’t have to choose a position. So I’ll leave my discussion at that.

Tomorrow I continue to the primary case I came to see, a First Amendment case.

06.10.14

Heien v. North Carolina: Is ignorance of the law an excuse for cops who need reasonable suspicion to stop you?

It’s that time again: time to visit Washington, D.C. for more Supreme Court bobbleheads and oral arguments! I’m not going to try assembling the bobbleheads til I get home, so no pictures of them yet. Just (the first) oral argument for now.

An early-morning Supreme Court building on the first day of the October 2014 term
OT2014 opening day at the Court

Opening day!

Today’s argument was the first of the October 2014 term. This timing was of particular interest to me: I’ve been to arguments at other times of the year, but I figured opening day might be a little different. It was, although not significantly.

The public line outside included a few people who come every year to opening day arguments — with one person who’d been doing it for twenty-five years. (SCOTUS groupies! πŸ˜€ ) If I ever make it back for an opening day it’ll be interesting to see him again. Unlike past years I didn’t do much case-reading while waiting in line; too much interesting discussion and general camaraderie.

Early morning camera crews in front of the Court building
Early morning camera crews outside the Court

Inside the Court the difference was limited to Chief Justice Roberts announcing the close of the October 2013 session and the opening of the October 2014 session — essentially none, just another day at the office.

Now, a brief-ish recap of the case.

The facts of Heien v. North Carolina

One morning in 2009, two men, one of them Nicholas Heien, were driving through North Carolina. Sergeant Darisse noticed them as they passed by and found their behavior suspicious, so he started following them. Eventually Sergeant Darisse observed a reason to pull them over for violating a traffic law. (As a practical matter it’s impossible to drive for any length of time in perfect compliance with traffic law. But under Whren v. United States it’s perfectly acceptable to make “pretextual” stops, where the stop is really being made for some reason other than the immediate violation noticed.) The reason here was that Heien’s car had a malfunctioning stop lamp — that is, when the brakes were applied, only one stop lamp went on (and the other did not).

Sergeant Darisse and another officer asked the two men in the car a few questions, and they became more suspicious when the answers diverged. Sergeant Darisse asked if he could search the car. The driver said he’d have to ask Heien (as owner of the car); Heien said yes.

Looking back on the line, from the Supreme Court plaza
Pictures in pictures, from the front of the line; note the scaffolding on the Capitol in the distance

A brief interlude

Before we proceed further, I would like to emphasize something.

When an officer asks you if you consent to a search, you say NO.

If the officer is asking you, (at that moment) he needs your permission to do it. You do not have to grant permission. You will gain nothing if you grant consent. You’re not going to be on your way any faster; searching properly takes longer than not searching. And you never know what he might turn up. If it’s your vehicle, perhaps you had a passenger recently who left something in your car, that wouldn’t look good: drugs, drug paraphernalia, or a Justin Bieber CD. Practically, you can’t know what he’ll find. And even if you do: you’re not qualified to say what might be considered evidence of a crime, or even something that might be used against you in court for some other reason.

What if the cop promises it might get you moving faster, or tries to suggest you have nothing to hide, or whatever? Don’t believe him. Cops can legally lie to you. His verbal promise is worth the paper it’s printed on. Don’t talk to cops. My understanding is consent can’t be coerced or tricked. But good luck arguing you were tricked into it, given weasel words like “might” and it usually being your word against theirs.

Back to the facts: the result of the search

Of course (because otherwise we wouldn’t be hearing this case), the search found drugs. So now a traffic stop’s turned into a charge for trafficking cocaine. See what consenting to a search does? (Why would Heien have consented to a search, despite presumably knowing there were drugs in the car? Probably because he was legally intimidated or guilted into it. Again: Do Not Consent To Searches.)

In lower North Carolina courts

Heien challenged the stop on a number of grounds, only one relevant here: that the initial reason for the stop wasn’t valid. North Carolina law requires a working “stop lamp” (singular; emphasis added). Heien’s car had a working stop lamp. If the law is properly read that way, there was no valid reason for the initial seizure, and so by fruit of the poisonous tree the result of the search here can’t be admitted in court. (Glossing over a few details, but I’ll circle back to them.)

The trial court disagreed with Heien, but on appeal a North Carolina court of appeals agreed. The law required only one working stop lamp. And a law requiring vehicles “shall have all originally equipped rear lamps or the equivalent in good working order” didn’t apply, because stop lamps were not “rear lamps”. (“Surprising”, as the dissenters at the North Carolina Supreme Court later noted — but also fairly justified by careful reading of the statutory text.)

The court of appeals then concluded that Heien’s seizure was not permissible under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits “unreasonable” seizures — and a seizure based on a misunderstanding of law is inherently not reasonable.

At the North Carolina Supreme Court

North Carolina didn’t contest the validity of the traffic law interpretation. Until North Carolina rewrites its laws (which, to be fair, weren’t originally buggy — back in the day only a single stop light wasn’t unusual, it’s just the law hasn’t been updated since 1955), at least in some parts of North Carolina you can legally drive with a broken stop lamp, if you have another that works. Instead North Carolina argued that the stop was a “reasonable” Fourth Amendment seizure: the officer made an “objectively reasonable” mistake of law, that had a “foothold” in the text (whatever that precisely means), which should be enough for the seizure to be reasonable.

Another interlude: good faith

Now an interesting quirk arises. Per United States v. Leon and subsequent precedents, the exclusionary rule that prevents admitting evidence obtained through a Fourth Amendment violation is riddled with holescontains a good faith exception for various cases where a violation occurs, but it’s deemed society’s interest in not ignoring the usually-obvious truth trumps the exclusionary rule’s benefits to individuals. So for Heien to get off, he has to argue that the Fourth Amendment was violated and that he’s entitled to the remedy of suppression and that no good faith exception applies.

Except that’s not the rule in North Carolina. North Carolina’s Supreme Court has interpreted some combination of the Fourth Amendment and its own constitution (I’m not 100% sure on the details) to contain no good faith exception. If the police violate the Fourth Amendment and you’re prosecuted under North Carolina law, evidence from that violation must be suppressed. (But see two paragraphs down.)

So Heien’s job is much easier. He needs a Fourth Amendment violation, but he doesn’t also need courts to feel “sorry enough” for him to suppress the evidence: North Carolina’s already done it for him.

Back to the North Carolina Supreme Court

North Carolina’s argument that the seizure, as an “objectively reasonable” mistake of law, was a valid Fourth Amendment seizure succeeded at the North Carolina Supreme Court by a 4-3 vote. (North Carolina’s not the first court to consider this question. Nine circuit courts have considered this question. Only one has adopted the North Carolina Supreme Court’s position.) Note carefully how the North Carolina Supreme Court in effect created an alternative version of the good faith exception, just without calling it one. (The dissenters specifically called them on this.) There’s increasing pushback in North Carolina against the lack of exception, culminating in 2011 in a statutory good faith exception and a legislative call for their court to reconsider the constitutional lack of such an exception. (I don’t know the extent to which that statute and the constitutional interpretation cause conflicts North Carolina courts will have to sort out. In any event the statutory exemption can’t apply retroactively to Heien.)

At the United States Supreme Court

The (United States) Supreme Court agreed to take the case to decide whether a cop misunderstanding the law, is enough to justify a search. It didn’t decide to take on the applicability of a good faith exception to such a mistake: only whether it was a Fourth Amendment violation.

Legal analysis

Both sides here actually have pretty good arguments from precedent for their positions. The Court has previously held that cops don’t have to predict that a law might later be held unconstitutional: they can enforce laws as they’re written, without worrying whether the laws are valid or not (“with the possible exception of a law so grossly and flagrantly unconstitutional that any person of reasonable prudence would be bound to see its flaws”). That case has various logic in it that cuts strongly in favor of North Carolina, but also a few parts that arguably exclude mistakes of law from consideration. Another, more recent case, Ornelas v. United States cuts the other way. And various other cases lend support to each side.

There’s enough evidence in case law to support each side that it’s hard for me to fault a judge for coming down on either side here, on the basis of case law. I think that says something about the case law, to be honest.

Rather, what seems stronger to me ultimately is the common law presumption that “ignorance of the law is no excuse”. If you violate the law, you’re still guilty even if you didn’t know the law. Heien beats on this point pretty hard: that it’s unfair to punish someone for a law he didn’t know about, but it’s okay for a cop to stop someone for an offense that doesn’t actually exist because of what, ultimately, is ignorance of the law. North Carolina and the United States try to distinguish this by saying that a cop who breaks a law he doesn’t know about is held to it as much as a normal person. But this on-the-job, off-the-job wax-on, wax-off argument is way too cute for me.

Another landscape shot of the Court building
The Court building, again; it appears from lack of netting that they’ve finished renovating the sculpture work just under the roof

Oral argument

Going into oral argument I didn’t have much sense how things might turn out. The common law rule seemed like it might speak to some at the Court. But the shining ideal of the exclusionary rule we’re all familiar with, has been steadily chipped away at for several decades. That chipping continues with the current Court. That general trend didn’t bode well for Heien.

I counted a few votes that looked fairly likely for Heien — Sotomayor pretty strongly, Ginsburg and Kagan to lesser extents. Roberts pushed about equally hard on each side in questioning. The rest seemed somewhat more in opposition to Heien than to North Carolina. Heien’s side got more pushback in oral argument than either North Carolina or the United States, all things considered. But the most striking part of argument was how it took multiple turns for the bizarre.

Justice Scalia asked why Heien wasn’t pushing for mistake of law triggering no good faith exception, in addition to it being a Fourth Amendment violation. This despite the presence of North Carolina’s non-recognition making the point irrelevant. He seemed to think the two questions were inseparable and had to be answered together. Which is a fair question — when deciding whether to review the case. But the Court took the case to answer only the one question, whether there was a Fourth Amendment violation, leaving the question of the remedy for such violation to another day. And the Court can’t really decide the question of remedy here, because it’s irrelevant to Heien and thus is not a “case or controversy” that the Court is empowered to decide here. I claim no knowledge of precedents, but it seems really unlikely to me (and Heien’s counsel had ready examples) that the Court hasn’t half-decided an issue like this before.

Meanwhile, Justice Alito wondered why North Carolina could get away without having a good faith exception: why weren’t they held to the federal rule? Which is an interesting question. But first, that question wasn’t accepted for argument, or argued below. And second, I thought Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins allowed states to interpret their constitutions (as North Carolina has done) to more strongly protect rights than federal courts would. (We might suppose from this that Justice Alito is rather a fan of the good faith exception [he said, understatedly, because Justice Alito is generally known to defend the police much more often than not].)

Finally, a few justices (Ginsburg, Alito, Kennedy) asked questions along the lines of, “If there was consent to search, given after the traffic stop had ended as a Fourth Amendment seizure, doesn’t that make the evidence admissible?” To which the clear answer, fruit of the poisonous tree (there is no chance to ask for consent to search, if there is no mistake-of-law stop), seemed so obvious to me as a decently-read non-lawyer (and to a couple other knowledgeable lawyers I talked to after argument), that clearly those justices were missing something really obvious. Or that law is less settled than I thought. (Which is entirely possible. But see the lawyers’ reactions.) But in any case it wasn’t the question presented, and wasn’t an argument North Carolina made in lower courts.

Predictions

Given the thoroughly strange turns in argument, I’m really unsure what’ll happen. The Court could dismiss the case as “improvidently granted”, because it’s not worth answering the Fourth Amendment question without also answering whether a good faith exception also applies, and they flat-out screwed up accepting the case. In which case, everyone wasted their time. πŸ™‚ The Court could answer the original question as saying there is a Fourth Amendment violation, then “somehow” also manage to answer the good faith question that was never seriously argued before — despite it not being relevant because of North Carolina jurisprudence. Or they could vote for North Carolina. But there was enough random confusion that it’s hard to guess much about who might win.

So in the end…yeah, I dunno. I don’t see any reason why the Court can’t decide for Heien or for North Carolina, and maybe in conference the justices can collectively learn enough to see why that’s so. Some of them clearly weren’t there yet, at the start of the day. Where they go from there, also unclear. I’m guessing the odds are still against Heien, but I could easily be wrong.

Other random observations

I arrived in line early enough (about 05:20) to receive card #11, solidly within the first fifty people in the public line to get a seat. (I think there were only actually eight people in front of me, and a few numbers got skipped.) This was a much better showing than the last Fourth Amendment case I attended, where I arrived at something like 02:00 and wasn’t joined by anyone else til 06:15. Just ahead of me was the man who’s attended the last twenty-five opening days, and a couple friends of his.

Supreme Court of the United States: Admission Card Number: 11
Eleventh (actually ninth, but that early it doesn’t matter)

In front of them was a rather unusual delegation: several people from the North Carolina police department that had seized Heien, including Sergeant Darisse himself! (North Carolina apparently only received six seats at oral argument, which presumably all went to the attorney general’s office. That’s surprisingly stingier than I’d have expected.) I imagine watching a case from that vantage point would be…kind of mind-boggling, actually. I asked about a picture, but occasional undercover work precluded it. πŸ™ No idea whether Heien himself was at the Court — apparently he finished serving his sentence, or at least is out now, so he might have been there. Of course, as actual party (as opposed to merely the agent of a party) he presumably would have no trouble attending.

In other associated mild celebrity meetings, I got to meet Orin Kerr of the Volokh Conspiracy, and very briefly (I didn’t introduce myself, just was present as he and Orin briefly talked after leaving the Court) Jeffrey Fisher of Stanford, most recently known for having successfully argued Riley v. California, the cell phone search case from last term.

Conclusion

In the end it seems almost commonsense to me that when you’re breaking no law, and there’s no confusion that you might possibly have been breaking the law in its actual meaning, you should be safe against searches and seizures. (Note that a mistaken understanding of facts, in contrast to a mistaken understanding of the law, doesn’t invalidate a search or seizure. For example, suppose someone liked having “fun” playing a recording of a woman’s screams in his back yard. It should be totally justified for a cop to investigate that, even if the facts are that no domestic violence or other crime is being committed.) Ignorance of the law should apply equally to everyone, and not differently to a cop acting to enforce what turns out not to be the law.

But it’s a long line of cases that have lent support to the notion that searches and seizures not consistent with the law, as ultimately interpreted by the courts, can still produce fruits for investigations and prosecutions. And so eventually we reach the point where someone can be detained for not violating the law identified as the reason for the seizure, and it’s a legitimate question whether the seizure is reasonable or not.

I don’t agree with the retired Justice Stevens on a number of issues. But in this case, judging by his dissent in United States v. Leon, I wish he were still voting on the Court.

(And, as always — and particularly here, because Fourth Amendment law is very clearly not a thing quickly or easily understood, and I am still only scratching the surface in my knowledge of it — please point out any mistakes I’ve made in my discussion here. πŸ™‚ )

30.04.11

Washington, D.C., part 6: Predictions and wrapup

(Just started reading? See part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.)

Reading the tea leaves

In some cases it can be reasonably obvious which way the Supreme Court justices lean. Oral argument and questioning in United States v. Stevens and District of Columbia v. Heller, for example, left most observers fairly certain which way the ultimate opinion would rule.

In other cases the future is much more murky. This was the case for both Tapia v. United States and Microsoft v. i4i Limited Partnership, at least in my understanding of the arguments.

In the case of Tapia, I’m only really sure of Justice Scalia’s vote. Justice Sotomayor seemed to lean pretty clearly one direction, but I have no idea if she was merely feeling out the waters on her argument, vocally pushing it to her colleagues, or just testing the arguments presented to her. And I couldn’t say how she might respond to the ultimate assertion made by Tapia (rather, the lawyer who argued for her) that “Congress has spoken” and that her desired outcome (supposing she indeed desires it) had been foreclosed.

In the case of Microsoft I have even less to go upon. I consider this the more technically challenging and complex argument, both for me to understand and for the justices to approach. Much of it went over my head. I suspect more justices will be drawn to the argument that Justice Cardozo described the standard of proof in patent cases in his long-ago opinion, simply based on discussion of it during the argument, and the appeal of referring to it under the concept of stare decisis (that is, to generally stand by prior decisions — although when one makes exceptions, as all justices do, is key to applying the doctrine). That doesn’t bode well for Microsoft. (Particularly because with Chief Justice Roberts’s recusal, Microsoft must count to count to five — but i4i only needs to count to four for their win to be upheld. In that case i4i would win the day without the case setting precedent to conclusively establish a standard of proof in patent litigation.) But I could easily be wrong.

Conclusion

I didn’t know exactly what to expect when I decided to make the trip to D.C. to go to an oral argument. Would it be worth the time to endure a mostly sleepless night, to go to arguments I might well not understand, at the expense of time and money it would take to be there? I was pretty sure the answer was yes (after buying the plane ticket to D.C. I was practically giddy with anticipation, and anyone who knows me knows how rarely I get that excited), but I didn’t know for sure.

Looking back, it was well worth the effort. Getting to see the highest court in the country in session, on matters of strong importance, even if I didn’t fully understand all that was discussed, was a priceless experience. And it was all the better by preparation spent reading briefs and considering the arguments presented. (I strongly recommend doing this if you ever consider visiting.) There’s also something to be said for the experience of just sitting in the line to get in, with people of all varieties all waiting to get in, each with as equal a right as yours to be there. (Well, almost equal: there’s that Supreme Court bar line, but they certainly put in the time for it. Although I have to admit I don’t immediately see a rational relationship between that investment of time, money, and labor and the ability to see arguments more easily.)

Anyway: it was definitely worth doing, and if I have reason to be in the area again in the future at an opportune time, I’ll probably try to do it again.

25.04.11

Washington, D.C., part 3: Second psot!

(Just started reading? See part 1 and part 2.)

The Supreme Court
02:33: The Supreme Court, from the west, just opposite the Capitol

I executed my plans and arrived at the Court at approximately 02:45. There was no obvious line, so I wandered around the Court plaza to look for a sign indicating where the line would form. (I knew it wouldn’t simply be on the front steps, alas.) I found none, and I hadn’t yet wandered up to a nearby guard to ask when the first person in line wandered up to confirm my intentions. (Note to anyone wondering exactly where the line forms: it forms on the sidewalk at the south end of the arc of waist-high columns in front of the Court, then trails south along 1st Street NE toward the corner.) Will, a patent attorney from North Carolina, flew up Sunday and arrived at the Court on the last Metro bus shortly before midnight. He too had been uncertain about timing and was playing it safe by arriving early.

The early crowd, at the point when it could first be called a crowd
04:15: The line begins to form in earnest; my gray backpack and water bottle are in the center

Will and I talked off and on until 04:00 when the line truly began to form. (This is recommended both to pass time and to gain friends who can hold your spot in line should you need to leave to use a bathroom or get some food.) At that time a cadre of patent examiners from the Alexandria office arrived on an informal field trip. More visitors followed shortly after, and by 04:15 the line was at 15-20 people.

I’d been warned it could get cold outside, and while it wasn’t cold, later in the night it wasn’t really warm. When I pulled on a Mozilla jacket to fend off the slight chill I quickly discovered:

  • Patent examiners hate IE. (And not just IE6, or IE7, or something similarly old: any version of IE. Amy, the patent examiner who told me this, was very emphatic on this point.)
  • Patent examiners love Firefox.
  • Patent examiners love Firefox extensions.
  • Patent examiners are probably the most legitimate tab over-users I’ve encountered. (It makes sense if they’re reference-checking and researching patent applications, considering many sources of information at a time.) One examiner told me he has around 300 tabs open.
  • Patent examiners are particularly interested in 64-bit Windows Firefox builds, because when you open 300 tabs you start hitting 32-bit memory limits. One had somehow found a 64-bit Windows build of “Namoroka” (Firefox 3.6) and had been using that for quite some time. I told him that there are unsupported 64-bit Windows builds of Firefox 4, and I mentioned that 64-bit Windows Firefox should happen soon.
05:17: The crowd reaches perhaps thirty
05:17: The crowd reaches perhaps thirty

The line grew in fits and spurts from there on. By 05:15 the line was up to perhaps thirty; by 05:40 the line had roughly passed the 50-person lower bound on nigh-guaranteed public seating. Subsequent arrivals frequently expressed disbelief at the length of the line, which made me quite glad I’d arrived as early as I did. Shortly before 06:00 a couple groups of us near the front tag-teamed watching our spots and heading to a nearby Starbucks for a bite to eat. I hadn’t planned on doing so, but I took the chance (and the caffeine) when I could. During the walk to and from it I further discovered that patent examiners have a sense of humor about the applications they see and about what they do. πŸ™‚

05:37: The line approaches the fifty-person threshold
05:37: The line of hoboes in suits approaches the fifty-person threshold
The line at 07:00 stretches all the way down the block
07:01: Surely past fifty now, but fifty's not an exact, consistent limit, so they wait

Just after 07:00 the unofficial line moved into position on the plaza, and we settled down again to wait. Shortly after we received numeric cards indicating our place in line, and once that happened we had somewhat more flexibility about what we could do: use the Court restrooms (immaculate gray marble, hands-free toilets and sinks, all imbued with considerable gravitas) and snack area (after passing through security), go elsewhere, and so on, so long as we returned in time to enter the Court.

Admission card #2 for entry to Supreme Court oral argument
The fruits of an early arrival
The long line of people extends straight back from the center of the plaza, passes down the steps, then turns left heading south along the sidewalk
07:05: In position on the plaza

After a Mountain Dew (more caffeine!) from that snack area and a bit more waiting, we finally began to pass through security. After ascent up stairs to the level of the courtroom, we deposited our things at the coin locker and coat-check area. After one last security screening (the second set of metal detectors to be passed), we were finally in the courtroom.

At 7:25, the Supreme Court bar line for admission to the argument is only 20-30 people deep
07:26: Looking for the short line? Just go to law school for three years, get admitted to practice for three years before the highest court of D.C. or a state/territory and don't get in trouble, get two (unrelated) Supreme Court bar members as vouchers, and pay the $200 admission fee (quoth another line member: "it's a bar, there's always a fee"), and then you can get in the short line. It's easy!

It wasn’t obvious which seats were reserved for the public and which were reserved for other use. The first ten people in line including me were seated at audience left on movable wooden chairs between two marble columns, just past the area where the Supreme Court press corps sit. The columns partially obscured the view of people behind me (which would seem to indicate that there’s no position in line guaranteeing a good view, unless you attend as a member of the Supreme Court bar), but fortunately I had a good view of all the justices.

At 10:00 the Court was called to order as the audience stood while the justices entered the Court. The first order of business before argument was to process admissions to the Court bar, a briskly formal process except for the brief moment after George Martinez moved that his three sons be admitted, in response to which Chief Justice Roberts, after granting his motion, further wished him congratulations. Sometimes opinions in previous cases are announced before argument, and occasionally a dissenting justice will give a stemwinder from his opinion if he felt strongly enough that the result was wrong, but unfortunately neither happened today. This business complete, the Court proceeded to arguments.

But before I reach the arguments, a deeper look at the cases themselves: next time.

24.04.11

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.