- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 19, 2005

After traveling all the way from Vermont, law student Sara Terranova didn’t want to risk missing a chance

to hear a case she had studied in class argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, especially with a new face at its helm.

Ms. Terranova, her professor and five other students from the Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vt., camped on the street in front of the massive Roman-temple facade of the court’s headquarters on Oct. 5 to be first in line for access to the chamber where the nine justices hear arguments.

About 1 million people visit the court each year, and many, such as Ms. Terranova, stay to watch cases argued. It’s a privilege open to anyone with a taste for high-level legal debate, an interest in a particular issue or just a desire to see history made — provided they also have the time and patience to wait in line.

The court welcomes visitors, says court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg. It offers them lectures, exhibits and a film about the court to help them become more familiar with how it operates. Oral arguments, such as the one Ms. Terranova and her fellow students lined up for, also are open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis.

“We encourage people to come. It’s a great experience,” Ms. Arberg says.

• • •

Visitors vary in their reasons for queuing up.

“We wanted to hear the arguments firsthand,” Ms. Terranova said. “We’ve read and researched a lot about this case.”

On the day the Vermont group attended, the justices were considering whether federal drug laws could be used to prevent doctors in Oregon from prescribing lethal drugs to patients who want to commit suicide.

The case, Gonzales v. Oregon, one of the most controversial in the term that began Oct. 3, attracted a larger-than-usual crowd to the steps of the court building just east of the U.S. Capitol. More than 200 people had lined up to watch oral arguments in the case, as demonstrators from both sides held court, and observers wondered how the new chief justice, John G. Roberts Jr., would perform in his first real test.

“We didn’t expect this, actually,” said Rick Demsher, of Tampa, Fla., referring to the demonstrators and the long lines of visitors. He and his wife, Lynda, had brought their daughter, Krystin, 10, to see how the court works.

• • •

The Supreme Court is generally the least-understood of the three branches of the U.S. government. It’s also the most remote — the nine Supreme Court justices are appointed for life with the advice and consent of the Senate, do not have to face voters, and conduct their deliberations in secret.

The court derives its power from Article III of the Constitution and is the final appeal on constitutional questions in the court system.

That makes its influence far-reaching. Since Chief Justice John Marshall declared in 1803 (in Marbury v. Madison) that the Supreme Court had the responsibility for interpreting the Constitution, its justices have been the arbiter on many divisive issues, such as segregation, abortion and now assisted suicide.

The court’s steps often become a stage for the physical clash of warring views, even as the intellectual clash proceeds inside.

When the court, for example, ended a dispute over Florida’s electoral votes in the 2000 presidential election, clearing the way for George W. Bush’s victory, oral arguments drew a line of potential spectators that stretched around the building. Some people waited two days for a chance to witness the historic deliberations.

More routine cases attract far fewer people, Ms. Arberg says.

• • •

The opportunity to see a new chief justice inspired the Demshers to visit the court on the first day of their Washington vacation.

“I like it,” Krystin said when asked about the opportunity.

“We’ve been trying to tell her that Supreme Court justices aren’t picked every day and they make decisions that affect all our lives,” Mr. Demsher added.

Chief Justice Roberts, 50, is the first addition to the court since 1994. He is only the 17th person to serve in that post and the youngest since Marshall, who took office in 1801 at 45 and whose statue occupies a prominent place on the ground floor of the building where the court has sat since 1935. Before that, the justices met in the Capitol.

It may be too early to say whether public interest in the court has increased since Chief Justice Roberts took over from Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died Sept. 3.

“From the calls we’ve been getting, people are as interested in the court as they’ve always been,” Ms. Arberg said.

Polls, however, indicate most Americans know little about the court and how it works, and are less interested in the appointment of a new justice than they are other issues, such as the war in Iraq.

In a 2003 survey by the legal Web site www.findlaw, 65 percent of those polled could not name any of the nine Supreme Court justices. The best-known justice was Sandra Day O’Connor, who earlier this year announced her retirement. She plans to step down once her replacement is confirmed by the Senate.

President Bush has nominated his White House counsel, Harriet Miers, to replace Justice O’Connor, setting the stage for the possible addition of another new justice by the end of the year.

• • •

The case of Gonzales v. Oregon is one of about 100 the justices will hear in an average term, out of more than 7,000 presented to them. It’s one of several hot-button issues the court is expected to consider over the next year. Future cases include those involving religious freedom and abortion.

At issue in Gonzales v. Oregon is whether doctors in Oregon, which allows doctor-assisted suicide, can prescribe lethal doses of federally controlled drugs. Oregon officials claim former Attorney General John Ashcroft and his successor, Alberto R. Gonzales, exceeded their authority when they declared that federal law bars the use of controlled drugs to assist suicides.

Oral arguments in this and other cases take place inside the ornate courtroom framed by marble columns and red velvet curtains. The frieze atop the columns depicts famous lawgivers through history, including Moses, Confucius and the ancient Athenian lawgiver Solon.

The arguments are a formal affair, with each side given 30 minutes to state its case to the justices sitting at a bench at the head of the room. Guests are not permitted to bring cameras or other recording devices, and only news reporters are allowed to take notes.

Infants and small children are discouraged, as is inappropriate dress.

“We tell them there’s not a dress code, but it is a formal setting,” Ms. Arberg says.

• • •

Here is a snapshot of what visitors saw during the arguments in Gonzales v. Oregon:

U.S. Solicitor General Paul D. Clement argued for the federal government; Robert M. Atkinson, Oregon senior assistant attorney general, argued for the state.

From the start, the justices — including Chief Justice Roberts — interrupted the lawyers to ask questions and guide the discussion. Only Justice Clarence Thomas, who rarely participates in arguments, listened silently.

“Doesn’t that undermine the conformity of federal law, making enforcement impossible?” Chief Justice Roberts asked Mr. Atkinson after the Oregon lawyer suggested the federal government lacked authority to punish Oregon doctors who prescribe suicide drugs.

Advocates for both sides said they took hope from the justices’ questioning, but court observers say the questions asked are usually not a good indication of how the justices will rule.

• • •

Outside, demonstrators with a stake in the outcome competed for attention amid reporters and camera-toting tourists in front of the court building.

“We’re hoping that the attorney general prevails and that the Oregon law is overturned,” said Carol Cleigh of Brasstown, N.C., one of a dozen people in wheelchairs who are members of Not Dead Yet, a group that champions the rights of disabled people.

The group considers Oregon’s law and similar “death with dignity” statutes as allowing illegal discrimination against the disabled because such laws assume they would prefer death to living with their disabilities.

On the scene supporting that group was Bobby Schindler, whose brain-damaged sister, Terri Schiavo, was the focus of a bitter, decade-long fight over whether to remove her feeding tube that prompted a national debate over end-of-life issues. The dispute between Mrs. Schiavo’s family and her husband reached the Supreme Court several times before the tube was removed and she died March 31.

“I think assisted suicide is something that we need to keep a close watch on,” Mr. Schindler said.

Nearby, with another group demonstrating in defense of Oregon doctors, was Carole van Aelstyn, a retired hospice nurse from Oakland, Calif., whose son, Nico, was among the lawyers supporting the state.

In her hands was a sign that summed up her position on the issue: “Give me liberty at my death.”

• • •

Competing demonstrations are a common sight in front of the Supreme Court during arguments in controversial cases, and reflect the ongoing fight over the proper role of the court in U.S. government.

For more than 200 years, the court has operated under the principle laid down by Marshall in the famous case of Marbury v. Madison (1803): “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases must of necessity expound and interpret that rule. If two laws conflict with each other, the courts must decide on the operation of each.”

The late Chief Justice Rehnquist, in his last annual message on the state of the judiciary Jan. 1, decried the erosion of the court’s image caused by controversies over its decisions, saying the system was not perfect, but has served the nation well.

“Let us hope that the Supreme Court and all of our courts will continue to command sufficient public respect to enable them to survive basic attacks on the judicial independence that has made our judicial system a model for much of the world,” he wrote.

What visitors can expect at court

Visiting the U.S. Supreme Court is an adventure open to anyone, from tourists to jaded residents. The building at 1 First St. NE is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays, closed only on Saturdays, Sundays and federal holidays.

The range of activities open to visitors will vary depending on whether the court is in session. It’s best to call ahead for schedule updates at 202/479-3211. For a useful introduction to the court and how it works, check the Web site at www.supremecourtus.gov.

At all times

• Ground floor: The Maryland Avenue entrance gives access to the ground floor. Available here at all times when the building is open are an information desk (by the John Marshall statue), exhibits and portraits of justices, phones, restrooms, vending machines and these services:

• Theater: A 24-minute visitors’ film on the history of the court is shown here.

• Cafeteria: 7:30-10:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. The cafeteria closes briefly to the public at noon and 1 p.m. to accommodate court employees.

• Snack bar: 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m., closing briefly to the public at 12:15 and 1:15 p.m. to accommodate court employees.

• Gift shop: 9 a.m.-4:25 p.m.

Out of session only

• Main floor courtroom: The courtroom where the justices hear arguments is the site of a series of public lectures on the court and its history. Lectures are scheduled only when the court is not in session — every hour on the half-hour, 9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. on days when the court is not sitting. Seating is limited; first come, first served.

In session: oral argument

For the current court term, the Supreme Court hears arguments Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays in two-week intervals through April, with longer breaks in December and February.

Up to four arguments, each one-hour long, are scheduled each day — two in the morning starting at 10 a.m. and two in the afternoon at 1 p.m. Each side is usually given 30 minutes to state its case, with justices often interrupting to ask questions. The justices later use the arguments to help craft their decisions.

The oral arguments are open to the public, on a first-come, first-served basis. Lines to obtain one of the more than 200 public seats generally form as early as 7:30 a.m. for routine cases at spots marked by signs in front of the court building. In some hotly contested cases, people camp out overnight to secure seating.

Seating for those who wish to see a full argument begins at 9:30 a.m. for the morning session and 12:30 p.m. for the afternoon one. There also is a separate line for those who wish to see only a few minutes of the proceedings.

Public seating inside the courtroom is in the back facing the bench where the justices sit. To the left are members of the press, and to the right are law clerks and special guests.

The arguments are a formal affair. Guests are not permitted to bring cameras or other recording devices, and only news reporters are allowed to take notes.

Infants and small children are discouraged, as is inappropriate dress.

Cases coming before court

The U.S. Supreme Court’s term begins on the first Monday in October each year. During its term, the court hears appeals from lower courts and serves as the trial court in cases involving disputes between states and cases involving ambassadors.

Visitors to the court get the most out their experience when they listen to oral arguments in such cases. Here are some of the high-profile cases the court is scheduled to hear this term:

• Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal: Nov. 1. The Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal, an offshoot of a Brazilian religious group that uses a hallucinogenic tea in its rituals, claims its religious freedom is being infringed by federal drug laws. The federal government contends the importation of the tea — which is classified as a dangerous drug with no medicinal value — violates U.S. treaty obligations and opens the borders to drug trafficking.

• Scheidler v. NOW, Operation Rescue v. NOW: Nov. 30. The court is taking a second look at these cases involving the limits of anti-abortion protests at abortion clinics.

• Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England: Nov. 30. This case examines whether New Hampshire’s parental notification law for minors seeking abortion violates the Supreme Court’s rulings on abortion by imposing an undue burden.

• Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights: Dec. 6. The court will consider whether a federal law denying federal funds to law schools that bar military recruiters is an unconstitutional infringement of free speech.

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