Experiencing the Highest Court in the Land

“EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW.” These words adorn the architrave1 atop the columns of the U.S. Supreme Court’s iconic main entrance. The grandness of this building and the solemnity of the proceedings within it are impressive to the public, but especially meaningful to members of our profession.  The courtroom is majestice, with beautiful marble columns, wooden aneling and a very high ceiling with intricate designs. Burgundy draperies with gold trim accent portions of the room. The building first opened in 1935, and the footprint of the courtroom itself is surprisingly small, compared to many other appellate courtrooms. The bench, while raised, is not as high as one might anticipate, and the justices are amazingly close to the audience.

On a Monday morning in early November, 16 Tennesseans took their places in specifically assigned seats in that hallowed courtroom. Before court was called to order, people chatted quietly. In the front of the courtroom, several stern-faced gentlemen with ear pieces occasionally spoke into their left cuffs as they continuously scanned the spectators. Security was clearly a priority. At 9:50, counsel for the morning’s oral arguments arrived at counsel table, where a quill pen had been left at each advocating attorney’s place. This is a traditional keepsake for those few among our profession who actually have the honor of arguing a case before the Supreme Court. At 9:55, a buzzer sounded, and the justices filed in and took their assigned seats on the bench in a particular order based on seniority, with the chief justice at the center.

As the clock struck 10 a.m., court was called to order. The first item of business was the granting of motions for admission to become a member of the Supreme Court Bar. When his turn came, TBA Past-President Jason Pannu was called by name by Chief Justice Roberts to the podium, where he moved the admission of 12 TBA members who chose to attend the 36th Annual TBA Academy (see more about it on page 5). Each stood as Mr. Pannu called out the attorney’s name, and the chief justice granted the motion for admission. All attorneys participating in admissions motions then stood, only a few feet from the bench, and took the oath for admission. It was a meaningful and reverent ceremony. Then the real action began. Two oral arguments were presented that morning. The first, Barton v. Barr,  was a study in statutory construction regarding the meaning of the terms “inadmissible” and “removable” in the context of the stop-time rule. For those of us who find immigration statutes sometimes quite confusing or downright baffling, there was comfort in hearing that, at least with regard to the statute at issue here, the justices shared that confusion. Justice Breyer stated that the statute in question was “as obscure as any I’ve seen.” He also noted that “[I]t wasn’t a genius who drafted this.”

The second case, Kansas v. Glover, addressed whether a deputy had reasonable suspicion to conduct a traffic stop. The owner of the vehicle in question had a suspended license and thus should not have been driving, yet the vehicle was being driven by someone. The deputy pulled the truck over, without any evidence of whether the driver was indeed the suspended owner. The owner, Glover, was driving the vehicle on a suspended license, which led to the bringing of additional charges against him. He appealed his conviction for a habitual driving offense. The Kansas Supreme Court held that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to make the traffic stop.

During the oral arguments of both cases, the justices were quite engaged, asking numerous questions and bringing occasional humor to the proceedings. The attorneys arguing these particular cases were all very civil to opposing counsel, professional and articulate in advocating the positions of their respective clients. The sparring among justices and attorneys was compelling to watch.

These are two cases that could each have a far-reaching impact in the relative areas of the law. The oral arguments were only a small sliver of the entire proceedings in these matters when viewed from start to finish, yet a critical part of the legal history of the issues unfolded in that courtroom on Nov. 4, 2019. This is the same courtroom where arguments took place for other cases that have played a major role in the development of our law, such as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Gideon v. Wainwright, Miranda v. Arizona, Loving v. Virginia, Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges.

If you ever have the opportunity to see legal history being made in this awe-inspiring venue, I hope you will take advantage of it. It is truly an unforgettable experience.

1. Yes, I had to learn a new word to write this column.

SARAH Y. SHEPPEARD is a shareholder in the Knoxville office of Lewis Thomason and a Rule 31 Listed Mediator. You can reach her at SSheppeard@LewisThomason.com.

          | TBA Law Blog