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What was it like to witness the historic US Supreme Court hearing?

People camped out overnight with hopes of getting a seat inside the U.S. Supreme Court to witness the historic arguments.
What it was like to witness the historic US Supreme Court hearing?
Posted at 7:11 PM, Feb 08, 2024

This particular Thursday morning in Washington, D.C, was brisk, in the low 30s, but a pleasant reprieve for this time of year. The relatively milder temperatures worked to the advantage for people who’d camped out for more than a day outside the U.S. Supreme Court in the hopes of getting a seat inside to witness the historic arguments in person.

In December, Colorado’s Supreme Court, in a narrow decision, ruled that former President Donald Trump should be removed from the state’s primary ballot because he engaged in insurrection and is therefore disqualified. Trump has vehemently denied he engaged in insurrection, and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

This is the first time in the nation’s history that nine justices have had to consider such a politicized question and many, including attorneys, turned the historic arguments into a field trip.

One attorney said she arrived at 11 p.m. the night before and camped out in front of the Supreme Court.

Outside the Supreme Court, barriers were erected overnight. The quick assembly and dismantling of these interlocking metal barriers is something Washingtonians have been seeing more frequently since hundreds of people marched towards the Capitol three years ago, and some eventually broke in.

As I walked up to the court, I walked past a few protesters who held banners that read “failed coup” and “Trump is a traitor,” through the metal barriers and to an officer who stood guard there. I told him I had a pass to go inside for the day. He asked if I was with the media, I said yes, showed a media badge, and then he pulled back the barrier to let me in.

I then walked across the plaza, away from the crowd.

Inside, there were the usual security measures. Like any other federal court building, the security included the routine of me walking through a metal detector, as my belongings passed through a machine to check its contents.

This was my second time inside the Supreme Court for work, so I knew my way around a little better, but this time, the media room was packed, many seats were taken, and many more journalists remained standing as we prepared for the last portion of our trip that would take us inside the courtroom where the arguments would be made.

Like a well-oiled machine, the court staff were able to file dozens of journalists down a hallway, up some stairs — where our chatty cohort of journalists were shushed — and through another level of security screening with a metal detector, or wands if you triggered the machine. We were only allowed to carry a few things: a card with our seating assignments, a notepad, pen and media credentials — no technology was allowed, no phones, no smartwatches.

SEE MORE: What's at stake in Nevada's Republican caucuses?

Before journalists are approved for credentials to watch an argument from inside the Supreme Court, they are warned that their views could be obstructed. With dozens of journalists applying for entry, I ended up in the last row, behind columns with beautiful drapery that appeared to fall from the ceiling. But, all hope wasn’t lost. I was still able to see two justices, Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.

The space was tight. I was literally rubbing elbows with my fellow journalists, but by moving slightly to the left or to the right, I could see the profile shot of the attorneys who were arguing the cases.

The attorney for former President Trump, Jonathan Mitchell started his arguments first, and his 40 minute allotted time went 20 minutes long. Mitchell argued that his client did not engage in an insurrection and that Section 3 of the 14th Amendment does not apply to Trump, because he’s not classified as an officer.

"'Officer of the United States’ refers only to appointed officials, and it does not encompass elected individuals, such as the president or members of Congress,” said Mitchell.

But Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson challenged that argument, saying that the 14th Amendment was enacted to keep potential insurrectionists out of state government.

“I thought that the history of the Fourteenth Amendment actually provides the reason for why the presidency may not be included. And by that, I mean I didn't see any evidence that the presidency was top of mind for the Framers when they were drafting Section 3 because they were actually dealing with a different issue," she said.

Attorney Jason Murray argued the case on behalf of the respondents who challenged Trump’s ability to be on the primary election ballot. This was Murray’s first time arguing a case in front of the high court, and justices called out some of his attempts to avoid certain hypotheticals.

"Please don’t change the hypothetical, okay?” Justice Neil Gorsuch told Murray. “I know. I like doing it too.”

Justice Gorsuch then urged Murray to answer the question that was posed.

That sort of direct challenge made some audience members shift uncomfortably — possibly with empathy for Murray — because this high-profile grilling was streamed live for many to hear.

Paul Schiff Berman, a professor at The George Washington University Law School, explained the dynamic to me during an interview a few days before the arguments.

SEE MORE: Who's Jason Murray, the lawyer arguing to keep Trump off Colo. ballot?

“You're getting pelted from all sides with questions constantly, and it's a real talent to be able to both respond to the questions, but also make sure you make the points that you want to be sure to hit during your oral argument, and there's a real art to that,” said Schiff Berman.

The arguments took approximately two hours and 15 minutes, nearly an hour longer than the 80 minutes that were scheduled. 

As journalists including myself raced out to hop in front of cameras for our live shots, news of how various sides were reacting to the arguments became part of our stream of information. 

In a press conference, former President Trump said “There were no guns, there were no anything. But if you take a look at my words right after you take a look at my speech from the rose garden, which was very shortly after — if you take a look at those five or six tweets, you'll see very beautiful, very heartwarming statements, 'Go home.' The police are doing their job, et cetera, et cetera.” Trump was not physically present for the arguments.

Colorado’s Secretary of State, Jena Griswold said “Donald Trump argued that all insurrectionists can be on ballots and that even if he was convicted of insurrection that he has presidential immunity. I think it's just so outrageous that Trump continues to think that he is above the law above the constitution and above the court system.”

I also checked back in with a few people we first met outside.

Robert Bolton, an attorney who told Scripps News he’s a member of the Supreme Court Bar, said, “It was moving to be present and watch in person as these historic legal arguments were being made. While there were moments of levity, every justice realized the seriousness of the occasion and likelihood that their decision may determine the next president of the United States.”

JoAnn Sparacino joined the line later in the day and didn’t get in.

In a text conversation, she later told me, “I listened to the arguments on Scripps TV when I got back to my apartment.  I was not surprised by the questions the justices asked and their l likely decision to not uphold the Colorado decision. I don't think the immunity appeal will be that easy for them to reject. The U.S., as the leader of the free world, should not allow attempted coup d'etats without consequence.”

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