BHSEC Visits the Supreme Court

Talia Bank, ‘19

March 2019

I didn’t know much about the Supreme Court before taking Dr. Mazie’s American Supreme Court class. But once I had the opportunity to delve into the Supreme Court as an institution in an academic setting, there was no shaking the feeling of allure that began to accompany the idea and the reality of a highest court whose say effectively solidifies the law for the entire country. The comprehensive judicial process, from case selection to oral arguments to decisions and opinions, has come to have an awe-inspiring effect on me. Of course, the Court has its shortcomings and I do not fail to recognize that. Nonetheless, I remain optimistic and idealistic, especially after experiencing the Court in action. I trust that the Court is a serious institution committed above all to upholding the Constitution and striving to do so in a way that fundamentally works with, rather than against, democracy.

           Sitting with these thoughts, I could not quite imagine how the Supreme Court would actually look like even though I had seen some images on the internet, or the manner in which the justices and the lawyers would interact, even though I had listened to audios of oral arguments. I wondered how it would actually feel to be in the courtroom where so many momentous decisions were made. Even more difficult to anticipate was how it would feel to actually witness one such decision in hearing an oral argument first-hand. Nonetheless, to the extent that I could, anticipate I did.

           When the American Supreme Court class, 9, met near Javits Center on Sunday, March 17th, to board the Washington D.C.-bound Megabus, the buzz of lively conversation reflected that anticipation. The drive into D.C. felt to me like entering a fairy tale. From the colorful townhouses to the lovely red-brick storefronts, I felt as if there were some inherently peaceful stability, somewhat foreign but also somewhat inviting, in the residential areas surrounding the capital of the United States.

Perhaps I am projecting, but I’d like to think that the Supreme Court radiates this sense of stability as well. While the majority of Americans may not have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the Supreme Court, only 18% have “very little” or “no confidence” according to a Gallup poll from this past summer. It seems that there is some sense among the majority of Americans that the Court is a legitimate institution, even though the justices are not elected and the judicial process can, at times, feel distant from one’s life or distant from one’s idea of justice. While I believe that many Americans, like most people I know, do not have the Supreme Court at the forefront of their minds, I do believe that most Americans do regard the Court as a legitimate institution; although feeling somewhat alienated from the judicial process, Americans are also, in a paradoxical way, somewhat represented in and by its rulings.

The Capitol Hill Hotel where we spent the night, situated a convenient half a mile from the U.S. Capitol Building, further emphasized that ‘somewhat’ status, with an eye towards optimism, in its décor. On a couch in the lobby visitors can clearly see upon entrance two pillows, one bearing the Democratic donkey, the other bearing the Republican elephant. In other words, the message is that we, the American people, are somewhat united, or at least equally welcome regardless of political party to the hotel, and by extension to our country’s capital.

After dropping off our luggage at the hotel, we spent the majority of our first day museum hopping and sightseeing. Whether we chose to visit the Vietnam, Washington, and Lincoln monuments, or the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, or the Hirshhorn (art) Museum, there was no dull way to spend the day. I spent my time in the Air and Space and Hirshhorn museums, learning some fun aviation facts and participating in the interactive Pulse exhibition where I watched my own pulse converted to ripples in a small pool of water. Needless to say, it was a pretty cool experience. We also visited the National Portrait Gallery as a class, looking at portraits of famous Americans, from justices to presidents and activists to athletes. Dinner was devoured at the Mexican restaurant chain District Taco and upon returning to the hotel, we prepared our Court outfits for the next day and got some sleep.

The day of the oral arguments, each student attended either the Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill argument on racial gerrymandering in Virginia, or the Smith v. Berryhill argument on disability benefits. The courtroom was smaller than I expected, with the justices in relatively clear view. Not too far from where I sat, on the left side of the courtroom, Dr. Mazie wore both his professor and journalist hats that day, sitting with the press to report on the arguments.

Artist’s Rendering of the Supreme Court Bench  Credit: Alexander Ganias

Artist’s Rendering of the Supreme Court Bench

Credit: Alexander Ganias

I saw the racial gerrymandering case, and it far exceeded my expectations even though most of the argument addressed whether or not the Virginia House of Delegates even had the legal standing to appeal the case to the Supreme Court, even though the Court had already decided part of the case back in 2017. Nonetheless, I was thrilled to be there and the notebook I brought with me is filled with pages of frantic notes that reflect the riveting back-and-forth of the legal reasoning I heard argued that day.

What impressed me the most was the ability of the lawyers to think on their feet and make their points while being interrupted by the justices with questions and comments very frequently. At the end of the argument, the crowd filed out of the courtroom through multiple exits to pick up their belongings from the Court’s lockers – there are no phones, recorders, or belongings of any other kind except for notebooks and a writing utensil allowed inside the courtroom.

The remainder of our day was spent meeting with one of Justice Sotomayor’s law clerks, Rachel Wilf-Townsend. Rachel was very pleasant to hear from and super informative. She emphasized that alongside the rigorous workload of Supreme Court clerkship, she also has opportunities to consider important and meaningful legal questions in discussing cases with Justice Sotomayor. She painted the picture of the Court as an institution made up of dedicated individuals in constant correspondence with one another to achieve a stable and reliable judicial process. A shout-out to Rachel Wilf-Townsend, I wish her the best in her future endeavors.

In the end, the Supreme Court trip was a truly memorable experience. I cannot be grateful enough for the opportunity to see the Court in action. Being there left me with a feeling of reassurance; justice is a work in progress, and the Supreme Court is the institution committed to sustaining that progress. A big thanks to Dr. Mazie for making it all happen, to Kara Goldstein and Stacie Millman for being wonderful chaperones, and to my fellow classmates for their inspiring intellectual curiosity and their cheerful company.