[Travel] SCOTUS, Washington DC

I, like every other white millenial, love to travel, and used every cent I earned while at uni on travelling and unnecessary clothes. The reality is that travel is expensive. However, some of the most amazing things you can do in a city are free. I wanted to share some of my favourite free things I’ve done while travelling – and I’m starting with possibly the greatest highlight of my life – seeing a full sitting of the Supreme Court of the United States. I recently got to visit Washington DC, and the day before we were due to fly there from Florida, I had the random thought to check whether the court was sitting. In the greatest joy of my life, we were there for their first two sittings of 2016. The information is relatively limited about how to actually attend – all I could work out from the website was that there were two lines: one for viewing the full sitting, and one for getting a three to five minute seat in the back.

The sitting on our first day began at 10am, and I saw that the seating for those wanting to view the entire sitting began at 9.30, and the 3 minute viewing at 10, so we naively turned up at 9.30. It was a chilly January day, and there were protests and music and signs and news cameras – and a very very long line of people. Turns out we had long missed the ability to view the entire sitting, so waited an hour and twenty minutes for our chance to view the court for 3 minutes.

While the line was long, it didn’t seem that long, so I was surprised that it didn’t move quicker. However, you actually go through two sets of security scanning, and are required to put all your belongings (no phones, bags, coats, anything) in lockers, with a 25c charge, before lining up again to get your three-minute moment.

The three minutes was the shortest three minutes of my life – I was so overawed watching the bench, the interchange, and making sense of the fragment of argument I heard that I felt like I barely got to absorb what I was seeing before we were being ushered out the door again. I’ll admit I got teary afterwards, much to my boyf’s embarrassment. The taster wasn’t enough, so I spoke to information about how to get a seat for the full sitting.

The man was lovely, but I could also tell thought I was a bit insane since I’d already seen it once. He recommended arriving at 7am, and explained that the police will provide you a ticket, after which you are allowed inside and can access the cafeteria and bathrooms, before being seated in the courtroom at 9.30am. Since there was a sitting the next day, we decided to just go for it.

Since we were staying in Vienna, we had the delightfully early start of 5.30am to shower and layer up for the fresh 0 degree Celsius morning, before taking the metro into DC. We arrived at the Supreme Court right on 7, and received this amazing view:

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I know. You can hardly believe it. A small line had already started to form, so I wouldn’t really arrive any later than 7 if you’re planning on attending. We were 11th & 12th in line. I went over to the shops to get coffees and use the bathroom. At around 7.45 we were taken from the street sidewalk outside the building to form a line right outside the steps, were given a numbered green ticket and directed in small groups through the security entrance. The numbered ticket is the reason it is absolutely worth turning up early, as it guarantees the order you will be seated – particularly as they can’t guarantee how many seats will actually be available at the hearing, as different cases attract different levels of interest from the public, and guest passes and media passes may take up the majority of the seats.

You go through the first bout of security scans, much like an airport scan although you can leave your shoes on, after which we lined up in numerical order. This guaranteed you could use the bathroom or the cafeteria without losing your spot. Then you move to another area for lining up, before heading to lockers to put everything away (we found out later you are allowed a notepad and pen, but I was glad to not have the distraction), go through security and then into the most wonderful courtroom in the world.

Cost breakdown:

  • Metro tickets: $10.40 for a return trip (a lot less if you’re staying in DC itself, I normally prefer to walk to these attractions)
  • Entry: free
  • Coffee: $1.80
  • Locker: 25c

Total cost: $12.45

That truly is the best part about the experience – you are allowed access to the highest court in the land, at no cost, to see the best advocates and the greatest legal minds combine. Even if you don’t have a legal background, it is one of the cornerstones of a democratic country, and your right, to be able to views he creation of law and legal rights of the people. Even as an Australian, I felt proud that this country has, despite barriers, continued to honour free and open access to the people’s buildings.

Enough of my pontificating. Below are my tips for visiting the court, which I wished I could have found in one cohesive spot before I visited. I hope they help!

Tips for visiting the Supreme Court:

  • Check the schedule online to see if there is anything on – days circled in red are sitting days. Typically the court has two hearings, at 10am and 11am.
  • Arrive very early (try look at how popular the matter is beforehand to guide your arrival time – but when you hear them say arrive at 7, they aren’t joking, and that isn’t the even too early – the numbered ticket system honours your commitment to an early arrival).
  • Dress warmly for the wait outside.
  • Bring as little as possible with you, as the lockers are quite small – and don’t forget to have a quarter handy, although there are change machines.
  • That said, bring breakfast with you, because it’s a long wait, and if you stay for both hearings, a long time until lunch. There are plenty of bins to discard your rubbish, and you can buy food from the cafeteria (may as well bring it from “home” though).
  • Read up on the matters beforehand for the background (I’m so glad I consulted scotusblog the night before, it made the day a lot easier to follow, particularly as I haven’t done any US law before).
  • Be patient – there’s a lot of waiting and no free wifi.
  • Be nice to the police – they were extremely patient and accommodating, and even brought me my glove I’d dropped outside, which I thought was far too kind.
  • Read up on court layout – there’s a really useful brochure you can get on arrival called “Oral argument in the Supreme Court” which tells you which judge sits where, in addition to other important court officer roles, and generally provides some more background that enhances your trip.
  • Remember to stand when the judges enter and exit (slight etiquette deviation from Australia, where we bow upon the entry and exit of judges).
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