The End is Only the Begining: Ms. Stanford Goes to Washington

Continuing my adventures in 3L, I recently took my first trip to the U.S. Supreme Court.  As part of the Stanford Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, I made the trek to Washington, D.C. to observe the oral arguments for the case on which I have been working for the past two quarters, Magwood v. Patterson (briefs and discussion available at http://scotuswiki.com/index.php?title=Magwood_v._Patterson).  Though the case could spark an intriguing discussion regarding the death penalty generally and the adequacy of psychological services for military veterans, the issue before the Court involved a technical question regarding the application of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act’s (AEDPA) restrictions on second and successive habeas corpus petitions.   

The morning of the oral argument, I was nervous.  I definitely would not be saying or doing anything during the oral argument; I would be just like any other observer in the courtroom that day.  But I had never been to the Supreme Court, and I think I was a bit overwhelmed by what the day might bring.  We arrived early and met our co-counsel to chat briefly before heading to Lawyer’s Lounge for a briefing by the Clerk of the Court.  After briefing, it was time to take our seats in the courtroom. 

Walking into the courtroom, I was immediately struck by its size.  I had imagined a room of majestic proportions for our highest court, but the courtroom seemed rather small.  However, regardless of its size, the room is quite magical.  Marble envelopes you as you walk through the courtroom doors.  Corinthian-style friezes adorn the walls, and the ceilings are lined with floral reliefs, gold and white with alternating borders of red and blue.  As observers take their seats, they are surrounded by classical images of justice – robed men (sorry, no women) sitting in judgment of those who stand before them.  We all orderly file into our seats and await the Justices arrival. My clinic partner was seated to my left, and she had been to the Court before – though this trip might have been different due to our personal investment in the case.  To my left, the family of one of the Court’s staff members sat attentively, listening to her explain where each Justice sat on the raised bench.  Oyez! Oyez! Everyone is silent, and court begins.   

Once the oral argument for our case starts, the attorney could scarcely get out the first few lines of his opening before the justices begin their barrage of questions.  Though I had worked on the petitioner’s side briefing and had read respondent’s brief from cover to cover, I struggled to keep pace with the speed of the questions.  Yet, each time I ran through the logical implications of the attorney’s response, I would suddenly realize that a new set of questions and answers were playing out before me.  I would begin the cycle all over again.  After the tenth or so time through this loop, I realized how inaccessible the rapid fire question and answer – more accurately, the partial answer cut short by a new question – session must be for many of the people sitting in the gallery.   

I wondered how many of them were also taking in the majesty of their first visit to the Court.  Were they, too, secretly wondering whether this would be the day that Justice Thomas asked a question?  In some ways, I feel like my visit to the Court was a culminating event in my progression through law school.  Though I had spent the last three years reading my fair share of Supreme Court cases (oh, memories of 1L…and 2L), before that day, the opportunity to visit the Court had never presented itself.  If you have yet to go, I would recommend making the trek – whether it’s a few hours drive or a cross-country flight.  Something about walking through the Great Hall and watching oral arguments in our country’s highest court just cannot be conveyed over a blog post.

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