Witnessing history

Day 1:

You could call it luck. I call it having some great friends.

Whatever it is, on Wednesday, I was one of the 15 or so laypeople who were admitted into the Supreme Court of the United States to hear oral arguments in United States v. Windsor, otherwise known as the DOMA or same-sex marriage case.

What began as a lofty idea became a full-blown reality and, ultimately, a lasting memory.

In December, when the court announced it would take up Hollingworth v. Perry (the case regarding California’s Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that prohibited same-sex marriage in the state) and Windsor, Melissa Wasser, James Toliver, Sean Varsho and I joked about going to Washington, D.C., to watch the oral arguments.

In my mind, the possibility of even getting into the court ended there. The dream lived on in Sean and Melissa’s minds, however, and I’m glad it did.

As the weeks passed, we’d occasionally talk about it. Finally, in early February, Sean and Melissa made it clear that they were serious about going, and that we needed to start planning.

Obviously, I was shocked we were actually going through with it, but I immediately expressed interest.

Within a few weeks, we had placed requests for funding assistance from the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. A huge thank you is owed to the faculty and staff in CLASS that were responsible for the favorable decision and traveling funds of $1,000. Without their support, the trip likely would not have been possible.

We left for D.C. around 11:30 a.m. on Monday, March 25. When we arrived at our hotel near Dupont Circle, it was roughly 5 p.m. Quickly, we checked in, dumped our stuff in our room and took the next metro to Capitol Hill.

Upon arriving at the court, we couldn’t help but notice the line wrapping around the perimeter of the SCOTUS property. Roughly 150 people were huddled under tarps, blankets, umbrellas and various other makeshift structures to keep warm and dry during the windy and wet evening.

Standing in line builds camaraderie, as I later found out, but it also requires responsible governance. Someone at the front of the line had started taking names and assigning placement for an unofficial list. When we got there, we were in the 120s, but this was the number of total people present. Most people, at the time, had hopes of getting in for the Prop 8 case, which meant we were in the 20s for the DOMA line.

Sean and Melissa’s jaws dropped.

“We’re staying here,” Melissa said. And that they did, for the next 26 hours. More on that later.

James and I were then assigned the task of fetching a giant tarp, tube socks, Chipotle and Apples to Apples (to keep then entertained through the night) from the nearest Target. By “nearest,” I mean 20 minutes away. We adventured around for the next few hours, not returning to the hotel until shortly after midnight.

Exhausted, we fell right asleep.

Day 2:

James and I woke up at around 7 a.m., and quickly got ready to check on Melissa and Sean. We arrived at SCOTUS at around 8:15.

Talk about tough. Those two had made it through the night unscathed and were ready for more. While the rain may have weathered them, they were rewarded in the morning with a visit from Jeffrey Toobin, legal analyst for CNN and The New Yorker. Sean got his copy of “The Oath” signed by Toobin.

Fan girl Melissa was ecstatic.

By 9 a.m., the sidewalk was filling up with activists on both sides of the issue. However, most seemed to be in favor of same-sex marriage. To estimate, about 85 percent outside the Court that morning were in favor of it.

It was sensory overload. Roughly 1,000 people with colorful and creative signs crowded the plaza expressing their support or opposition of same-sex marriage. You couldn’t raise your arms without bumping into someone; that’s how crowded it was.

Oral arguments in the Prop 8 case began at around 10 a.m., and once the parties left the court at around 11:30, the crowd slowly began to disperse. For the remainder of the day, James, Mark (a student from Northeastern University in Boston who was behind us in line) and I traveled around the National Mall observing a traditional marriage rally.

By 5 p.m., Melissa was borderline delirious and needed to rest. We took her back to the hotel where she struggled to stay awake long enough for me to get her dinner.

James and I returned to the Court at around 9 p.m., and found Sean patiently waiting in a collapsible chair someone had given him to use. He hung around for a little longer before he went back to the hotel to shower and nap. However, he didn’t stay there very long.

See, Sean was dead set on gaining access to the oral arguments in their entirety, so once he found out our position in line was one that would likely result in a courtroom seat, there wasn’t anything in the world that could cause him to move.

So, James and I agreed to watch our spot while Sean rested a little. We couldn’t have been more unprepared.

We only had a tarp, garbage bag and a small blanket to keep us warm in windy, mid-30s weather. James and Mark wrapped themselves in the tarp and curled up on the ground while I covered my legs with the garbage back and the blanket and sat in the collapsible chair.

An hour later, I traded with James, who quickly swapped positions with Mark. Poor Mark. James and I struggled to block the wind while under the tarp, and it continually ripped it away from us resulting in a rapid loss of heat, which we had just captured in our makeshift fort.

After three (long, grueling and torturous) hours, Sean returned primed and ready to sit. While we felt bad, he later admitted he used all the materials he had at his disposal to cocoon himself and was warm the rest of the night.

Day 3:

We returned at 6 a.m. and claimed our spot in line. The line buzzed with excitement. Media from all over the world interviewed people in line about their likelihood of getting in the court.

Now, there were two lines. On the left side of the sidewalk were lawyers who had been admitted to the D.C. Bar Association. Due to their status, they were able to enter the courtroom first, which resulted in most of the seats being occupied.

We were worried. Only 50 people from the general public (our line) would be admitted.

In our line, there were about 35 paid, “professional” line standers who were making upwards of $50 an hour to sit there for several days so a high-profile person or lobbyist could gain access. And by “professional,” I mean a clearly underemployed person struggling to make ends meet. On top of that, while there may have been only one stander, they could have been holding the spot for two people.

As a Capitol police officer slowly walked down the line distributing tickets, my heart began to race. News cameras followed him as he passed out the purple cards one by one. Finally, he got to us.

Kim Siegel, a public policy worker from Delaware, was the first layperson in line at 37. Melissa, Sean, James, Mark and I were next with 38 through 42.

We made it in.

“Thank you, sir!” James said.

Another officer quickly ushered us past metal barricades and up onto the steps of the Supreme Court. Dwarfed by (the image of) giant white pillars of the Court’s facade (it’s under marble restoration work), it slowly began to sink in; in a few hours, I would be witnessing history.

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