How I Became a Member of the Bar of the U.S. Supreme Court
by Susan Basko, esq.
Last month, I was honored to be sworn in as a member of the Bar of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Bar members are the lawyers from the nation that are eligible to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. Bar members are allowed to write and argue the cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. I've seen it estimated that there are 75,000 living Bar members.
Bar members attending Court arguments are allowed to sit in a special section of the courtroom, just behind the Counsel tables. This section is referred to as being in front of the brass railing. There is a brass railing that divides this section of the Courtroom from the rear section allotted to the general public. The Courtroom is surprisingly small and run with very strict decorum. The center aisle is manned by elegantly attired, very polite Secret Service agents -- with the telltale earpieces. When an important case is being argued, there will usually be a long line to get in. Bar members get their own line and the seating in front of the brass rail. This can be a great advantage at getting in to be able to view an argument. This can be most helpful if one writes about Supreme Court cases, or simply if one likes to watch them. Male Bar members are required to wear a suit and tie. Female Bar members must wear suits or dresses. There is also a dress code for the general public that attend.
Nearly all the Bar members, men and women, wear nice black suits. It used to be that lawyers arguing a case before the U.S. Supreme Court were required to wear a morning coat with striped trousers. Today, lawyers from the Solicitor General's office still wear this outfit. These are the people arguing cases for the U.S. Department of Justice. On the day I was sworn in, one lawyer was dressed in this outfit. The morning jacket is long and swoops down in back. The pinstriped trousers are long and slightly flared at the bottom. This formal wear suits the sedate mood of the Courtroom, which is ornate, with original furnishings from 1935, when the building was constructed.
No electronics are allowed in the U.S. Supreme Court. Phones, smart watches, ipods -- none of these can be brought in. Most courts allow phones, but require them to be turned off or muted. The U.S. Supreme Court does not allow them in. No cameras of any kind are allowed into the Courtroom, even when court is not in session. Thus, there are very few photos or videos of the inside of the Supreme Court. These items can be stored in the hall by the restroom, where there are a few small rental lockers on a first-come basis. I don't know what people do if they have such an item and cannot get a locker. Coats are left at a coat check or on a coat rack. Security in the court is very tight. Very few items are allowed in and those that are, are put through a metal detector and then hand searched.
How did I come to be a U.S. Supreme Court Bar Member? The Dean from my law school, who was already a Bar member, invited me and said she would like to move for my membership. I said yes. She would be moving for the membership of a group of 12 lawyers. We had to fill out the application. Two sponsors, who were each already members of the U.S. Supreme Court bar, had to sign the application. The sponsors had to vouch that they know us and our work personally and that we are of good character. Thus, you can only become a member of the U.S. Supreme Court bar if you know people who are already members.
On an argument day, a group of 12 may be admitted in a group ceremony. We were each allowed to bring one guest into the Courtroom. On the morning we were to be sworn in, we were to meet at 8 a.m. at a special side door. I got up early, got dressed, and walked the few blocks over to the Court. I was excited and happy.
|Conference Room at U.S. Supreme Court, where our breakfast and reception were held.
|Chandelier in Conference room
We were ushered in to the Courtroom and seated on rows of formal old chairs that are original with the building. We were very near the front of the Court, so we had a perfect view for the arguments after the swearing in. The Court sits on a raised marble platform with a long curved desk, called the bench. Each justice has a chair specially made for them, to their measurements and requirements. When a justice retires, they get to take their chair home with them. If I were a Supreme Court justice, I would want a chair with a built-in foot rest, and a cup holder built into the arm. The assistants to the Court came out and placed the case brief booklets at each place. Some assistants brought out water bottles and placed them by the Justices' places. After everyone was seated, the Justices filed in and each took their designated seat.
Court was called to session. The full Court of all the Justices were present. The first order of business was the swearing in of new bar members. Our Dean, who was moving to have us admitted, was announced and called to the podium. She first read the short motion that is used verbatim by all movants for admittance. Then she read each of our names, and we stood. She made a few statements about being satisfied that we were qualified. Chief Justice Roberts then announced that he was accepting the motion and that we were admitted. Then, another group of 12 did this same procedure. We had seen them in another conference room across the hall from ours. Next, we all stood and raised our right hands, while the Clerk of the Court read an oath and then we said, "I do."
It felt quite special to have my name read into the record of the U.S. Supreme Court. It felt special to be admitted to this Bar. Among our group, everyone I spoke with is involved in practicing law for the good of the people. One man works for an Appellate Defenders Office. Another conducts litigation for a State Attorney General. I have been involved in international Human Rights, such as Freedom of Assembly and Freedom of Speech and the Media. One lawyer, who is blind, advocates for veterans. Every one of us has been busy using our law licenses to improve society and life. People in our group have been lawyers for anywhere from about 10 years to over 30 years. They seemed to be a rock solid group of fine people and good lawyers. I felt so honored to be among them.
Immediately after the admittance ceremony, the Court heard two cases. Each case is allotted exactly one hour for arguments. There is a giant clock above the stage where the Justices sit. (This is a great blessing, considering there are no phones or smart watches allowed.) In addition, there are timer clocks that flash when the lawyer arguing the case is out of time. It was interesting to watch the style of arguments. I have acted as a Moot Court Judge -- and if a Justice is going to be prepared, it takes a lot of time to read the case materials. My experience in that position made me appreciate the work that goes into being a Supreme Court Judge. Watching the arguments, my preference was toward the female Justices. I thought they asked the most pertinent questions that brought out salient points.
One lawyer arguing for the defense in the second case was an exceptionally good arguer. What made him so good was that he knew the law of his case extremely well. He spoke very quickly in an animated way, with a lot of gestures and arm waving, which seemed to suit him well. His arguments were very convincing, mainly because he seemed to know what he was talking about. He seemed to be very in control and not the least bit intimidated by arguing before the Supreme Court. In contrast, there was a female lawyer who appeared to be arguing something off topic, and one of the Justices asked her if what she was arguing was even the question that the Court had agreed to decide. It wasn't; she said she was concerned about what might happen on remand, having already accepted defeat in her mind. I suppose one way to lose a case at the Supreme Court is to go in arguing about something else.
|Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg attended reception in our honor.
Next, those of us who wanted to attend were given a very special lecture about the Court. This was held in the Courtroom and given by a highly knowledgeable docent. Only four of us attended. I learned that there is a basketball court above the Courtroom, and ball bouncing is prohibited until after 4:30 pm on days when Court is in session. I also learned that the Junior Justice, who is the newest member of the Court, has among his or her duties to answer the door and the phone in the conference room while the Justices are deciding a case. The Junior Justice is also in charge of the food in the Supreme Court Cafeteria, which is open to the public and very popular with people working on or visiting the Capitol.
After the lecture, a few of us went to the cafeteria to see the food. Justice Elena Kagan was in charge then. There was a lovely salad bar filled with fresh vegetables for 70 cents per ounce. There were hot entrees that looked healthy and freshly made. The day we were there, the entrees had a South American flare, with stuffed yams and a plaintain side dish. Now that the Junior Justice is Neil Gorsuch, I wonder if he will bring in some specialties from his home state of Colorado, such as baked trout. Yes, while most people are wondering how the presence of Justice Gorsuch will change the tenor of the Supreme Court rulings, I am wondering how his presence will change the cafeteria food.
|Dome of the U.S. Capitol Building
We looked at the cafeteria food, but did not have time to eat, because our whole big group was scheduled shortly for a special tour of the Capitol Building, granted to us by a Congressman. We walked across the street to the Capitol Building and went through security. Unlike the Supreme Court building, which is quiet and subdued, the Capitol Building is very noisy and filled with groups of high school students and tourists. It is also heavily guarded. I saw one young army guard holding a machine gun at the ready. He stood joking with his guard friends. Giddy high school kids walked by. The security level seemed commensurate with this being the U.S. Capitol in 2017.
Our group was told to meet by a certain statue. Once our group was gathered, we were taken into an auditorium where we watched a short film about the history of the U.S., the U.S. Constitution, Washington and the District of Columbia, and the Capitol Building -- all told in about 12 minutes. It was like a semester of U.S. History all wrapped up in one quick little, attractive movie. Then, we climbed the stairs to the back of the auditorium and out into a hall. We were introduced to our tour guide. She gave each of us a set of headphones with a receiver on a lanyard to wear like a necklace. We would walk through crowded halls, and past other group tours, but in our headphones we would hear only our own tour guide. She was fantastic. We were taken on a tour of the public parts of the building, which is quite impressive. This tour included climbing about 1,000 stair steps. There were benches for sitting and resting all over the building, all of which seemed to be filled with grade school kids, looking wiped out.
Lastly, we were each given a pass to go see the House of Representatives that day and any day for two years. These are called "Gallery Passes" and I could not help but think they are considered tickets to the peanut galley. When we arrived at the Chambers gallery, the House was in recess for an hour. Some people in our group decided to go in and wait. I have seen legislators in action many times and I was hungry and tired, so I left.
As a member of the Supreme Court bar, I will receive an impressive certificate for my wall. A few years ago, I was asked by someone as he filed his case with the Supreme Court, if his case was selected, would I argue it? At the time, becoming a member of the U.S. Supreme Court bar seemed insurmountable and I had to decline. Now, I am a member. If I am ever asked again, I can say yes.
|U.S. Capitol Building