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. 🙂

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.