But I hadn’t, so I didn’t, and there I was, aloft on Tuesday morning. And it was absolutely glorious!
What officially drew me there this time was the opportunity to watch an oral argument at the United States Supreme Court. The case on the docket was Missouri vs. McNeely, and it centered on the question of whether police should have to get a warrant before forcing a blood draw for evidence in a drunk driving case. A little more than eight years earlier, I’d argued exactly the same issue before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and the Wisconsin court ruled that the fact that alcohol is constantly disappearing from the driver’s bloodstream during the investigation and arrest creates an exception to the general requirement for a warrant. The Missouri Supreme Court reached the exact opposite conclusion last year, and so SCOTUS took up the case to finally settle the issue for the entire country. I was just there to claim a front seat at the table of history while the pivotal arguments were going on. When else would I ever have anything like a reason to show up in that courtroom?
(Okay here I will confess that I actually had been inside the courtroom itself once before, but not for actual court. My dearly departed godmother had taken me along several years ago as her traveling companion to watch a historical case reenactment presided over by her conservative jurist hero, Antonin Scalia. I don't remember what case was argued, but there were drinks and hors d'ouevres afterward, and I got photos of both my aunt and myself with Justice Scalia. Hers turned out to be the worst picture she'd ever taken. Mine, with me all dolled up in a lace blouse and blue-rimmed glasses on the other hand, was charming, and made it look like I was on a blind date with Danny DeVito.)
After checking the D.C. weather report, I nervously threw caution to the wind and left the calf-length down coat, mukluk boots and winter gloves behind. This was no small point. Just before Christmas, a blizzard had left me without power at my house for forty hours, and dumped fifteen inches of snow in the front yard.
I needn’t have worried. The plane touched down at one in the afternoon, and the sun was shining. There was not a snowflake in sight.
After following my friend Kathy’s excellent directions for the Washington Metro and emerging from the subway only a block and a half from my hotel, I was awestruck to notice purple pansies in profusion lining the sidewalk as I walked by. I snapped pictures like the tourist that I was. Then, as I turned the corner, I saw that the pansies were part of the luscious landscaping at my new digs for the night, the St. Regis Hotel. I silently gave heartfelt thanks to the folks at Expedia.com and their “book your flight + hotel and save!” feature.
Once I was settled in, I still had hours to go before meeting Kathy for dinner, so I scored a map of D.C. from the front desk and went out for a walk.
I stopped at the Renwick Gallery on the way back, and took in a current exhibition of crafts by young artists, as well as the portrait gallery on the upper floor. As I finally walked back to the hotel, I couldn’t help but notice that the sidewalks in these corridors of power seemed overwhelmingly occupied by guys in dark suits and well-tailored overcoats, striding purposefully toward…what, I had no idea. Whatever their agendas, they seemed to involve a lot of texting. Texting while walking, texting while waiting for the light to change at street corners, texting while riding subway escalators.
Over delectable dinners, Kathy and I caught up on about four years of life and family and work, and then it was finally time for me to call it a night. It was going to be a long and thrilling day ahead! The next morning I was up long before the sun was even a low gleam on the horizon. Breakfast was a chunk of cold salmon and caramelized onions left over from dinner the night before, in between showering and packing. After checking out and parking my suitcase at the hotel, I cabbed it over to the Supreme Court building an hour before it opened to the public. I wasn’t taking any chances at not getting in!
Oh, what I would have given to be able to have a camera in my hand for a few minutes! We were seated nearly an hour before court started, and as the stately and beautiful room started to fill with spectators and participants and staff and security guards, the energy and anxiety were palpable. There were lawyers, old and young, who were going to be formally admitted to the Supreme Court Bar before the cases were called, and their proud sponsors who would each personally ask the court to do so. The participants in the morning’s cases readied themselves at their seats at the front of the courtroom, doing last-minute cramming as if for law school exams. There was glad-handing, and introductions, and jostling around, and wishes of “good luck” from various quarters. And then, finally, some of the individual justices’ clerks emerged from behind the tall scarlet drapes with coffee cups to be placed at the bench, and then all the justices emerged to take their seats. New bar members were sworn in, and then what is literally the Super Bowl of law in the U.S. began.
As the arguments started…and even before…I realized that I literally had ended up with the best seat in the house!! Somehow, fortune had smiled on me and I was seated in the front row of the bar member section, at the very edge of the center aisle, directly facing Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice John Roberts. Going back to the Super Bowl analogy, a seat like that would be on the fifty yard line, just behind the coach and players. Wow. And as a few of my girlfriends from law school had predicted, and being that close to the action, I nearly had to sit on my hands to keep from raising one and offering, “Yes, I know the answer to that question!”
It will be months before a decision is reached in the case, changing the way one half or the other of the country processes drunk driving arrests. After the hour of argument in the McNeely case was finished, there was a mass exodus from the room as the players and spectators for the second case of the morning filed in. I managed to get a photo on the steps of the courthouse with the Missouri prosecutor who had convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the issue, and then took inventory of the rest of the day.