Nation’s highest court is a powerful draw

Within an hour of learning that the U.S. Supreme Court would rehear oral arguments on the Kansas death penalty law on one of the days I would be vacationing in Washington, D.C., I was on the phone finding out how I could get in.

A friend of mine once said that when he flew into Washington he was sure he could actually feel the power rising from the nation’s capital. And here was a chance to see some of the nation’s most powerful people in action. What better way to spend your vacation.

After a phone call and a few e-mails, I had directions to the court’s public information office where my press pass for the April 25 hearing would be waiting. It wasn’t the first time I’d visited the Supreme Court building, but this definitely felt different. Today, I was more than a spectator. I picked up my pass and was directed to the press room, which held cubicles for press outlets that regularly cover the court. Nina Totenberg wasn’t around; this case apparently didn’t rate time on National Public Radio.

There are some rules: no electronic devices of any kind; reporters, both men and women, must wear suit-type jackets; men must have ties. Security is tight. I was allowed to take my purse in, but a granola bar I had stuck in it in case I didn’t have time for lunch drew the guard’s attention. “No food allowed in the courtroom,” he said as he shined a flashlight into every purse pocket. I told him to throw the snack away, but he shrugged and told me just not to start munching on it in the courtroom.

I entered the heavily draped courtroom and found a seat in the press alcove located to the justices’ right and about 20 feet from the bench. The room isn’t overly ornate, but it exudes an air of authority with a touch of intimidation. It’s a place where history is made.

At exactly 1 p.m., the gavel sounded, everyone rose from their seats and the justices, who already had heard two arguments that morning, came in and took their seats. In a couple of cases, clerks stood behind their bosses and pushed in the massive chairs.

The chairs, in fact, were so large that they dwarfed the justices who sat in them, especially Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In this country, these justices are all-powerful, but they looked like they were sitting in their parents’ seats. During much of the argument, several justices rocked slowly in their chairs. They would lean forward when they engaged the attorneys and then slump back as they listened to the responses and their colleagues.

Within a minute, Kansas Atty. Gen. Phill Kline began his prepared argument. About a minute after that, he was interrupted by the first question from the justices. The prepared script went out the window.

The scene took on the demeanor of a law school classroom as justices asked questions and posed hypothetical scenarios. In true Socratic style, the justices were using their questions to make points and clarify their thinking on the matter at hand. It was respectful – they weren’t interrupting or talking on top of one another – but they were making their points.

After 25 minutes, Kline abruptly stated, “If it please the court, I’d like to reserve the remainder of my time.” Each attorney had exactly 30 minutes to present his or her case, and Kline wanted to save enough time for rebuttal.

Rebecca Woodman, the attorney arguing the case for the Kansas Capital Appellate Defender’s Office, stepped to the podium to begin her prepared statement. In almost no time, she also was interrupted. Justices were skeptical of the idea that a jury could find itself in a 50-50 dilemma on a death sentence. Woodman launched into an example of a woman who was choosing between two portraits of her husband to donate to the Yale University law school.

“Is that an aggravating factor?” interrupted Justice Antonin Scalia, a Harvard law school graduate, causing laughter in the courtroom.

At 1:51 p.m., it was time for Woodman to take her seat. “Thank you Miss Woodman,” said Chief Justice John Roberts.

Back to Kline who sought to clarify one point and then answered a couple of new questions. At 1:55 p.m., the gavel went down again. I almost didn’t get to my feet before the justices were out the door.

Most of the justices were actively involved in the entire discussion. Justice Ginsburg asked only one question; Justice Clarence Thomas said nothing. Both arguing attorneys, in this amateur’s view, represented Kansas well. They seemed well prepared and were only momentarily caught off guard a couple of times by the justices’ questions.

The justices’ thoughtful, intelligent approach was impressive. They wanted to explore all of the avenues, coming at the issue from many different angles. They asked insightful, challenging questions. No detail escaped their notice.

After I e-mailed in a story about the arguments for the next day’s Journal-World, a colleague asked if covering the case had been “fun.” I said it would have been more fun if I had been just a spectator and didn’t have the responsibility of deciphering what was happening well enough to write about it.

Watching the U.S. Supreme Court in action may not become a top American tourist attraction, but as a life experience and civics lesson, I would give it high marks.