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SCOTUS Nerd Convention

October 24th, 2019 by dk

It happens at 1 First St. NE in Washington, DC, every first Monday in October. Or, rather, it happens outside that address, on the sidewalk. The start time is less formal, but it’s always Dark:30. Local conditions affect the actual start time.

Most years, arriving at 4:30 is early enough to be near the front of the line. This year was different, though nobody could explain exactly why. One friend flew in from Texas, coming straight to the sidewalk without stopping at his hotel. He arrived at 2:00 AM and warned us by text that a crowd had already gathered.

Another friend arrived at 3:45 AM, to find more than two dozen ahead of him. I showed up near the usual time, which wouldn’t have been early enough to gain entry at all, except for the kindness of strangers. We were all in line for the opening session of the Supreme Court, but only a few of us do this every year.

It’s a small nerd convention that meets outside before dawn every year, across the street from the U.S. Capitol building and three blocks from a Starbucks that’s open all night. Most come only once, because they happen to know somebody involved in the case being heard that day, or because their law school professor dared them to try it.

It’s not just anyone who will give up half a night’s sleep to watch judges and lawyers joust with each other for exactly 60 minutes, and that’s what makes it fun. The small-talk conversation you have in the line with strangers always develops into an interesting discussion. Those who pay less attention are home in bed, along with anyone sensible enough to know their presence will make no difference.

Some stand in line to receive their new iPhone. Others mark their calendar for opening day of their favorite baseball team. Being a fan of the Supreme Court is no different. We show up, understanding that the day’s outcome will be determined by nine chosen players — except for us, food and cheering are forbidden.

When you come every year, you notice what’s different and what’s the same. Chief Justice John Roberts decided to try something new this year. He promised the lead attorneys they would have two minutes to make their case, before the justices would begin peppering them with questions. It was awkward for everyone, but it made it a better show for those who hadn’t studied up.

The sidewalk experience was mostly the same. The crowd gets restive around 5:00 and festive around 6:00. (The sun rises slowly when you’re waiting for it.) Snacks get passed around by those who came over-prepared. Anyone with a badge or a uniform produces hopeful murmurs that our wait may be ending.

Then, every year around 7:30, they line us up and count us off — exactly like junior high school gym class. Then everyone scatters — breakfast, bathroom, selfies. Then there’s one more line to enter the courtroom, seated for a 10:00 start. For just a few of us, it marks the passing of another year.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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