One of the best things about going to school at GW are the opportunities in DC. This morning I made time to see oral arguments at the Supreme Court for Wyeth v. Levine. The issue in Wyeth was whether the FDA’s drug labeling laws preempt state tort claims. In other words, if a drug manufacturer’s drug label passes FDA scrutiny, will a person injured by negligent labeling be able to bring a common-law damages claim against the drug company? I worked on preemption stuff over the summer so I was interested in the case. Here’s a brief photo tour of my field trip.
I skimmed the briefs the night before and got to bed early.
Arguments for Wyeth started at 10:00 am. I thought that if I left around 6:00 am I would secure a place in line. It was still very dark outside when I left.
The Metro’s not so busy at 6:00.
I got off the metro at about 6:25. As I was walking North on 1st Street past the Library of Congress I thought I saw a group of people by the Supreme Court. That was my oh-crap-I-should-have-come-earlier moment. Sure enough, there were about 70 cold, tired people waiting in line when I walked up to the court. Who knew so many people were interested in federal preemption of state tort law? I remained optimistic, however. The courtroom has about 200 seats. Members of the Supreme Court bar and other groups have priority over the lowly public waiting in the cold. But surely there wouldn’t be 130 people from the priority groups interested in this case? The anticipation was building.
7:05. Still waiting. Struck up a conversation with two guys behind me. One was a SCOTUS junkie who could probably tell you the name of Rehnquist’s aunt’s dog if you asked him.
I got the purple ticket! At about 7:30, the SCOTUS police handed out these “place-holding” tickets. The officers reminded us that the tickets didn’t guarantee admission, but simply held our place in line in case we needed to use the restroom while we waited to gain admission.
8:30. Still waiting . . . .
Tried to read First Amendment law for class tomorrow but found it hard to focus.
9:15. The police start letting people in the main doors. More anticipation. Am I going to get a good seat? Is it going to be a hot bench? Is Thomas finally going to say something?
9:25. Inexplicably, the police stop letting people in. What’s going on? No explanation.
9:45. Still no explanation. Things are not looking good at this point.
9:50. The dreaded announcement from the police officer. “There are no more available seats for the 10:00 am case.” Dang. All that waiting and all that reading for nothing. I guess there were more than 130 in the priority groups waiting to see the case.
10:00. I decided to hang around for the 11:00 am case. A group of us who didn’t get into Wyeth huddled around some kid’s iPhone and tried to educate ourselves on the issue in the next case, Ysura v. Pocatello Education Assocation. At issue in Ysura was whether, under the First Amendment, a state may bar county governments from making payroll deductions for political activities (unions).
Finally, after going through security and hassling with the guy in the coat-checking room, I got a great seat for Ysura. The petitioner had already started by the time I grabbed my seat. Through the course of the arguments I was surprised by a few things:
1. How utterly tired and bored some of the justices looked. Breyer was slouching in his seat with his head tipped back and his eyes closed for a good chunk of the petitioner’s oral arguments. Thomas looked like he was nodding off at a few points. And Alito literally leaned forward and put his entire face in the palm of his hand. He kept it there for like three minutes.
2. How sprite and attentive Stevens was. Seriously, for being 88, the guy looked great. Judging by how he looked and performed, I think the speculation about him retiring soon has no basis.
3. The style of the lawyer for the petitioner. I didn’t like it. He was too slow and deliberate. That style might be desirable in some cases, but when it’s obvious the bench is bored out of their minds, I think it’s time to pick things up a bit. Maybe do a quick dance or something.
In all, it was a great time. I suggest taking the time to see oral arguments some time during your stay in DC. It’s well worth the wait to see the justice system at work, even if you don’t quite understand all the details of a particular case.