At 3:26 a.m., almost seven hours before the U.S. Supreme Court was to take up President Barack Obama’s health-care law, Saray Noda got a wake-up call: The court’s lawn sprinklers turned on.
Noda, 23, a law student at American University in Washington, had camped out to get a seat in the courtroom. She was about 40th in the line of roughly 100 people hoping for the chance to see arguments over the constitutionality of the 2010 health-care law.
“If I don’t get in, I’m going to be the most disappointed person here,” she said.
Today’s was the first of three days of arguments over a law designed to extend insurance to about 32 million people and revamp an industry that accounts for 18 percent of the U.S. economy. The six hours of scheduled debate are the most on a case in 44 years.
The line included professionals paid to hold spots for others, along with those who said they wanted to see history unfold. Some wore tailored suits; others were clad in jeans.
The court was holding at least 60 seats open for the general public for each day of the argument, Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said last week. The court also reserved 35 seats for people who will be able to see about five minutes of the argument before making way for other viewers.
Outside the court this morning, across the street from the U.S. Capitol, remnants of a weekend campout were strewn on the sidewalk: blankets, food containers and plastic bottles.
By 9:30 a.m., the scene outside the court had turned from groggy-eyed line sitters to a carnival atmosphere complete with a New Orleans-style brass band, marching protesters, cries of “socialist” and “We love Obamacare!”
The early round of line-waiters moved inside the court. A new queue formed for the second day’s arguments. That line stretched around the corner.
In front of the court steps, chanting supporters of the law were shoulder-to-shoulder with two men holding an American flag and another with the “Don’t Tread on Me” rattlesnake symbol of the Tea Party. Americans for Prosperity, a Tea Party-affiliated group, plans a rally tomorrow afternoon at 1 p.m. in opposition to the law.
Noda arrived yesterday around 6 p.m. without food or blankets. Her roommates dropped off supplies to help her through the night. She managed to mostly dodge the court’s sprinklers and stay dry.
The effort paid off -- she saw the whole argument from inside the chamber. “When the chime in the courtroom went off and everybody stood up, we all knew we were experiencing one of the most important oral arguments of the next 25 to 50 years,” she said of the hearing’s start.
At least, most people experienced it -- a handful had paid the price from a sleepless night outside, Noda said in a telephone interview after the hearing. Sleepy eyes and a nodding head earned a tap on the shoulder from the court officers.
“I was so tired it was hard to keep my eyes from closing. It’s one of the downsides of camping out in front of the court,” said Noda, who said she kept herself from an accidental nap.
Lauri Lineweaver, a nurse in the intensive care unit at Presbyterian Healthcare Services in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said that the first day’s session was “a little more lighthearted than I expected it to be.”
The justices probed each lawyers’ arguments, said Lineweaver, 35, a supporter of the legislation. “They were very assertive in making attorneys not only for the government but also the plaintiffs’ attorneys really, really explain what they were asking for,” she said.
The justices questioned the government’s assertion of the law resulting in a tax or something similar to a levy, which would call into question whether it was in the court’s jurisdiction to review the case, said Tim Sandefur, a Sacramento, California-based attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which favors limited government. Sandefur said he filed 10 briefs for opponents of the health-care law as the case has made its way through the court system.
The government argued that it “doesn’t have to be a tax to be something that the court can’t review,” he said. “The court seems pretty skeptical of that.”
$50 an Hour
Others waited in line for a paycheck, or at least a meal, and never went in. Xavier James, 34, and his wife Crystal Crowell-James, 31, got in line at midnight for a company that charged $50 an hour to hold places for two Boston attorneys. Normally, the Washington couple stands in line outside Senate hearings for $30 an hour. They declined to name the company they worked for or the names of the Boston attorneys.
Paul Schenck, 53, put his twin 20-year-old daughters into service helping hold his spot near the front of the line. Schenck, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was there representing the Roman Catholic church. “As a clergyman, uninsured access is a very important concern,” he said.
He opposed the law because of provisions on coverage of contraceptives, though, calling it a “poison pill.” He was there to see what he could glean from the arguments. “I hope to get a sense of the justices’ minds,” he said.
Quang Trinh, 37, from Sydney, was in Washington to judge an international moot court competition. He is hoping to see the Supreme Court arguments on his day off, so he showed up this morning and got in the back of the line.
“For years, I’ve been hearing about the intense challenge of fronting up to the bench,” Trinh said. “I’m interested in seeing how a very good advocate does in front of the Supreme Court.”
The mood in line was friendly, even among those on opposite sides of the debate. Some strongly support the law and think it didn’t go far enough, while others call it an overreach of government authority that should be repealed.
Attorneys admitted to practice law before the Supreme Court had their own line, which was shorter and had less camping equipment.
Sandefur, 35, began standing in the line for lawyers at 1:49 a.m. to witness a case that sparked “a widespread discussion of the Constitution that I’ve never seen before.”
The case’s implications go beyond health care to how much control the federal government should have over its citizens, Sandefur said. The health-care coverage rule may set a precedent in which “the government could force people to buy a car from government-owned General Motors,” he said.
Ilya Shapiro, a senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Washington-based Cato Institute, which advocates for limited government, said he had two interns stand in line for him beginning at 10 p.m. yesterday in exchange for a lunch.
Shapiro, 34, said he and his family migrated from the Soviet Union to Canada. He said Canada’s national health-care system has less technology, forcing residents to come to the U.S. for treatment. He said he didn’t want the same thing to happen in the U.S.
Shapiro said he didn’t want to miss the arguments.
“This is the Super Bowl,” said Shapiro, who wore a black tie decorated with red images of the scales of justice. “It’s the most significant case about the relationship between the government and the governed.”
Tom Brennan, 54, of Rochester, New York, and David Morse, 26, of Houston, camped out over the weekend and got to know each other.
Brennan said he wants a government-run health-care system and hopes that the law gets upheld.
Morse, who previously worked for Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, a Texas congressman, said he doesn’t like the idea that he would violate the law if he fails to obtain insurance.
“If you’re sitting in your own home, doing nothing, you’re fine, the government can’t touch you,” Morse said. “But if this is upheld and you don’t have health care, you’re violating the law.”
Morse, a student who said he just got out of the U.S. Navy, brought a black necktie, though he couldn’t figure out how to tie it. Before the sun came up today, Brennan helped.
The two looked out for each other’s belongings so they can take bathroom breaks and stretch their legs.
“Everyone’s really cooperative,” Morse said. “People watch my stuff.”
From under a blanket a few feet away, a voice called out, “Hey, man, people are trying to sleep out here!”
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