The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

DC Summer Interns Witness the Announcement of Landmark Supreme Court Decision

Article Type 

I am currently a rising sophomore at Dartmouth College, spending the summer in Washington, DC, as an intern in the press office of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Along with 22 other students, I am part of Dartmouth’s Rockefeller Center First Year Fellows program, which sponsors summer internships in DC for students interested in careers in public policy.

On June 26th, 2015, I woke up at 3:30 a.m., hastily packed a bag of necessities (Cheerios and headphones), and stumbled out the door with my roommate, Kelsey. We were on our way to the United States Supreme Court. Our goal: gain admission to the courtroom for the announcement of the decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that would determine the legality of same-sex marriage. We wanted the chance to witness history, to hear firsthand if our LGBT friends would finally obtain the equal marriage rights we felt they deserved, and to see American democracy in action.

Dartmouth students witness firsthand the Supreme Court announcement of the Obergefell v Hodges decision on June 26, 2015.

The morning began with a very strange Uber ride at 4:00 a.m. through Northwest DC, where we are living for the summer. Our driver seemed thoroughly confused, both about why Kelsey and I wanted to go to a court at 4:00 in the morning (we’re pretty sure she thought we were in serious legal trouble), and about how to get there. When we eventually arrived at the Supreme Court it was 4:24 a.m. and we were certain that we were too late to be among the first 50 people in line at the Court.

Despite the imperial façade of the Supreme Court, members of the public are actually welcome in the courtroom. For decision announcements, the first 50 people in line are typically granted access to the courtroom. It’s first come, first served. Admission cards are distributed in order of arrival and, while there are no guarantees, your odds of admission are high if you are among that first fifty. After that, the court admits others depending on how much space is left in the courtroom after members of the press and the Supreme Court Bar have taken their seats, but the court never admits more than 100 members of the general public.

Dartmouth students witness firsthand the Supreme Court announcement of the Obergefell v Hodges decision on June 26, 2015.

When Kelsey and I arrived, we were pleasantly surprised to find approximately 40 people in line, and realization that we would likely be admitted was thrilling! Five of the people in front of us were other Dartmouth students in our summer public policy program. The others already in line were a combination of LGBT activists, college students, lawyers, people who had driven to DC from all over the East coast to be at the court for this moment, and a few who seemed like they had no idea why they were there but camped out anyway. I later came to understand that these people were paid “seat savers” for others who wanted to arrive at a reasonable hour but still hear the decision read. Among the group who had hired seat savers were the plaintiffs in Obergefell v. Hodges and the various related cases. I found it odd that plaintiffs must wait on the same line as the general public line in order to hear their own cases decided.

By 5:00 a.m., a swarm of media outlets arrived and began setting up their cameras, angling to get the best shot of the Court. As the morning went on and more journalists arrived, the line of camera set-ups began to somewhat merge with the front of the public admission line.

By 5:30, the members of the public line had begun to bond. Kelsey and I chatted with a high school student named Alex, Kelsey’s friend from her home in California, as well as with Amanda, a UVM Law student who was standing immediately behind me in the line. Kelsey and I were both wearing Dartmouth sweatshirts to stave off the early morning chill, and two alumni who happened to be jogging by stopped to talk with us. Additionally, we had a variety of conversations with others in line about Obergefell v. Hodges, legal precedent, and judicial philosophy. It was also interesting to hear the conversations that others were having. I was amazed at the optimism and camaraderie of everyone on line. It seemed like everyone attempting to hear the decision was in favor of same-sex marriage. I found the lack of protesters astonishing. Indeed, throughout the day I only saw two individual people with signs protesting gay marriage.

Dartmouth students witness firsthand the Supreme Court announcement of the Obergefell v Hodges decision on June 26, 2015.

A woman a few people down the line from me was hyper-sensitive about people potentially cutting the line, and at one point walked around and made everyone sign a piece of paper in numerical order to prevent cutting. This proved challenging since people periodically left the line to walk to a nearby Starbucks. There was a great deal of strategy in timing one’s Starbucks run, and each group took shifts sending some people for food and bathrooms while others saved spots on line. At around 6:05 I went to the Starbucks with Alex, and returned quickly. Initially, the thought was that Kelsey would go right after Alex and I got back, but she was engrossed in Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, and decided to wait until later. Meanwhile, I was beginning to get excited. It was finally light out, it seemed like we were going to be admitted, and everyone on the line was incredibly pleasant. I never ended up using the headphones I packed since everyone was chatting, though the Cheerios did come in handy.

At approximately 7:10 a.m., Kelsey and Alex went to Starbucks. They had been gone for about 15 minutes when I started to hear whispers up the line that admission tickets were going to be handed out to the first 50 people at 7:30. If you aren’t on the line when the tickets are handed out, even if you’ve been there since 4:30 a.m., you will not get a ticket. I started frantically calling and texting Kelsey, but she was unresponsive. By 7:32-ish, the police officer handing out tickets had gotten to me; Kelsey and Alex were still nowhere to be seen. I officially became ticket holder number 37, while Kelsey and Alex, who returned two minutes later, were ticketless. Kelsey was furious and frustrated. Almost everyone had left the line at some point, yet she was the one who timed her trip to Starbucks incorrectly. She and Alex moved to directly behind ticket holder number 50, hoping that since they were now people 51 and 52 they would be admitted to the court in the second round of general public admittance.

Dartmouth students witness firsthand the Supreme Court announcement of the Obergefell v Hodges decision on June 26, 2015.

Though stressed about leaving Kelsey behind, I proudly walked toward the Court at 7:45 a.m. All 50 of us were marched to the edge of the court steps and were then called into the court in three groups. Since number 37 placed me in the last group, I had plenty of time to take pictures in front of the court, aided by Amanda who was number 38. Once we entered the court at 8:00 a.m., we were told we had until 8:30 to use the restrooms, grab food in the Court café, and chat. One of the other Dartmouth students, Garrison, and I took the opportunity to take a photo with Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff. He was incredibly nice to us, and it was so cool to meet him just before his case was decided. I had been wearing leggings and a sweatshirt all morning since we had been sitting on the ground outside the Court, but decided to change into the business clothing I had packed with me for work since the Court was so formal. It seemed like many people had the same idea that I did, since I was not the only person to change. We all lined up again around 8:30, but were not let upstairs until 9:00 because “the Court was not yet ready for us.” This whole time we were expected to be quiet, which was challenging since everyone was in high spirits.

We were led upstairs just after 9:00 a.m. There we turned in our numbered tickets and were told to place all personal belongings in lockers. The only things one is allowed to bring into the courtroom are pen and paper. We then went through an additional security checkpoint before lining up outside the courtroom. We were eventually taken in small groups to seats. At this point, I found myself with Audrey and Rachel, two of the other Dartmouth students present. While we were waiting to be led to our seats, I spotted Kelsey and Alex walking up the stairs to the courtroom! They were numbers 51 and 52, and there ended up being enough room for about 80 members of the general public. I was relieved that my friend was inside. Audrey, Rachel, and I were led to a bench about 2/3 of the way back in the room. It really is a beautiful and majestic room, and I would recommend finding a photo online of what it looks like because my words would be inadequate. At this point it was 9:35 a.m., and the justices were scheduled to begin handing down decisions at 10:00.

Dartmouth students witness firsthand the Supreme Court announcement of the Obergefell v Hodges decision on June 26, 2015.

As it got closer to 10:00 the room got quieter, and everyone seemed tense. Rachel knew what Obergefell’s lawyer looked like, and saw her give Obergefell a thumbs up. We took this to mean that his case would actually be decided that day. As a side note, we didn’t actually know if same-sex marriage would be decided in the Court that day because the Court does not announce on which day it will hand down which decisions. We had taken an educated guess that it would be Friday the 26th because the case King v Burwell had been decided the day before, and also because Kelsey works in a DC court and her supervisor told her that he thought it would be Friday. We were relieved that the case we had waited so long to hear would actually be one of the decisions announced that day.

At precisely 10:00 a.m., a loud buzzing noise signaled the entrance of the Justices, and that all in the courtroom were to rise. Unfortunately, one of the plaintiffs who was VERY tall was sitting directly in front of me, so my view was somewhat obstructed. I had to keep bending my head in different directions to see different Justices, in particular Kennedy, Kagan, Alito, and one of my favorite humans on the planet, Justice Ginsburg. The Court wasted no time in announcing that Obergefell v Hodges would be the first decision read that morning. There was a collective intake of breath from the room, since we were not expecting it to be the first case announced. The day before, King v Burwell had been the second case announced after an incredibly important but less well-known case about fair housing. Immediately I had a good feeling about Obergefell for two reasons. First, Justice Kennedy was the author of the opinion. Since he is often the swing vote on the court and had written the opinion two years ago when the Defense of Marriage Act was ruled unconstitutional, it seemed unlikely that he would rule against LGBT rights. Second, Justices Thomas and Scalia looked angry. Scalia specifically had reclined in his chair, had his hand on his face, and wore an expression of gloom. When announcing Court opinions, the Justices do not start by stating which side has won the case. Instead, they read an abbreviated version of the opinion with some of the key constitutional reasoning that led them to the conclusion, which is announced at the end of the opinion. As Justice Kennedy began to read, it became increasingly clear that my two inclinations were correct: the court had ruled in favor of Obergefell.

Dartmouth students witness firsthand the Supreme Court announcement of the Obergefell v Hodges decision on June 26, 2015.

I won’t go into the details of Kennedy’s opinion here since a search of press reports easily reveals the main points, but I will address the atmosphere in the room as he read the opinion. Since Justices do not immediately reveal how they ruled and instead begin with the background of the case and the legal reasoning behind it, one really has to wait until the Justices have spoken a bit before it is clear what the decision is. As Justice Kennedy finished with the sort of “preamble” to the opinion and began discussing the history of the LGBT movement and discrimination against American citizens who ought to be equal before the law, it felt like everyone in the room was excited and on edge, while at the same time it felt somber. There were some definite sniffles, and as Kennedy’s words became more moving, I too felt like I was going to cry. I held it in because the Court security guards were walking around motioning for everyone to keep silent. Probably the most moving part of the opinion was when Kennedy talked about the discrimination faced by the children of gay and lesbian couples, who are made to feel like their loving families are “less than” due to their parents’ lack of marriage rights. When Justice Kennedy announced the final decision that the court had reversed the ruling of the 6th circuit, everyone seemed excited and like they wanted to clap, though of course making noise was prohibited.

It was much harder to pay attention to Chief Justice Roberts reading his dissent because at this point it had been announced that same-sex marriage must be legalized in every state. Justices Thomas and Scalia also wrote separate dissenting opinions, though they did not read theirs in the courtroom. I managed to pull it together and listen to Chief Justice Roberts. I strongly disagree with his dissent because I believe that the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment, “no state shall…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,” means that denying homosexual couples marriage licenses systematically prevents a group of American citizens from being equally protected by the law. However, I respected the legal reasoning that informed Chief Justice Roberts’ writing. I cannot say the same for Justice Thomas and Justice Scalia’s dissents. But none of this mattered. I was proud to be in the courtroom to witness the moment in history when gay marriage was nationally legalized. As someone with many LGBT friends, involved with College Democrats of America, and a Unitarian Universalist, I was thrilled to see the Supreme Court affirm that all love is love and should be respected by the law.

Dartmouth students witness firsthand the Supreme Court announcement of the Obergefell v Hodges decision on June 26, 2015.

After Chief Justice Roberts finished reading his dissent, Justice Scalia proclaimed, “Don’t everybody leave!,” which got a big laugh from the audience. I thought it was excellent that he did that because it served as a moment of comic relief, and got everyone ready to hear the next case. Justice Scalia then read the opinion of the court for Johnson v. United States, which ruled that the “residual clause” in the three strikes law (it was a theoretical threshold defining what constitutes a violent felony) was unconstitutional because it was so vague. This was an 8-1 decision (Justice Alito dissented) and felt relatively straightforward and uncontroversial. Justice Alito did not read his dissenting opinion, the Justices left the Court, and the audience was directed to leave the courtroom in silence (which was challenging).

After we went back into the courtroom antechamber, we collected our things from lockers and met back up with Kelsey and Alex. We could hear screaming and cheers from the steps outside the court. We ended up leaving the building directly behind the plaintiffs, so people were cheering at us as we walked by.

Dartmouth students witness firsthand the Supreme Court announcement of the Obergefell v Hodges decision on June 26, 2015.

The scene outside was utter madness in the best way possible. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) had a giant flag, much like parachutes used in elementary school gym classes, that they were waving and people were running under it in celebration. HRC was also handing out flags, my friend Maddy got a shirt from the ACLU, and the Democratic Party was handing out stickers. Different LGBT rights organizations waved flags and banners and various religious organizations came to show their support, including Catholics, Baptists, and conservative Jews. I feel like this is the kind of thing where a picture really is worth a thousand words, so I’ve included some of those below. The lack of hate groups amazed me. I had brought my “Standing on the Side of Love” shirt with me (shout out to the Unitarian Universalists), and was proud to wave it like a flag.

My favorite part of the whole scene outside was the Gay Men’s Chorus of DC singing traditional American songs a cappella on the steps of the court. Many things make me proud to be an American, but few things have ever made me more proud than the moment when a group of citizens that just had their constitutional rights recognized celebrated by singing the National Anthem. After that, they sang “We Shall Overcome,” but changed the lyrics of the second verse to, “We will marry free today,” which garnered massive cheers from the crowd. At this point Kelsey, Alex, and I started to leave the court (we had lost Rachel and Audrey a while back) because we all had to get to work. I wish I could have stayed longer since the atmosphere around the court was pure joy.

Dartmouth students witness firsthand the Supreme Court announcement of the Obergefell v Hodges decision on June 26, 2015.

The morning had been exhilarating. As a Government major, I found the whole experience rewarding in every way. The nuances of the process and the grandeur of the day were both fascinating to me. And of course, I found the highest Court in the land acting for equality to be one of the greatest manifestations of our American democracy. I am proud to be an American, I am proud to be an LGBT ally, and I was proud to stand on the side of love on June 26th, 2015 when I witnessed the announcement of the Obergefell v Hodges decision.

-Written by Charlotte Blatt '18, a Rockefeller Center First Year Fellow.

Close
The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences