What would it be like to cover a story blindfolded and hunched over on a wobbly wooden chair on a full airplane? I got a pretty good idea this week during oral arguments in two same-sex marriage cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
I can't tell you whether a single justice smiled or smirked or yawned. I can't tell you whether the plaintiffs held hands in the courtroom or if Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wore her signature lace jabot. I can't even say with certainty that Justice Clarence Thomas – who never speaks during oral arguments – was in the courtroom at all.
What I can tell you is that more than 100 journalists were there scribbling furiously in notebooks, on steno pads and on the backs of court hearing schedules. They were the only people I could see.
Reporters covering the Supreme Court – with the exception of a handful of SCOTUS regulars – are relegated to a narrow area to the side of the court perpendicular to the judicial bench. There is just enough room for three rows of chairs placed so close together that every other journalist has to lean forward or back a few inches so there's enough room for everyone's shoulders. (Shown below, in model of courtroom.)
These seats are behind 10-foot-tall gates adorned with hundreds of brass acorns and draped with floor-to-ceiling red velvet curtains that are parted in the middle. The curtains hide speaker wires attached to large marble pillars, and reporters in the front row sit nearest the pillars must with their noses about eight inches from the curtains, which they must not touch, lest they be admonished by a judicial marshal who has to brush up against the velvet herself in order to reach the offending journalists in the cramped quarters. Curtain movement distracts the justices, a marshal scolded on Wednesday.
Reporters are not allowed to stand during proceedings, and fidgeting is frowned upon. I found that lifting my bottom just a few inches off my chair, leaning a bit toward my seatmate from The Times of London and peering around one particular acorn afforded me an excellent view of Chief Justice John Roberts's right ear.
The view was particularly problematic when I was trying to sort out which justice was speaking, and I wasn't the only reporter having this trouble. The questions passed down the line of journalists in my row.
"Was that Kennedy or Alito?" I asked a seatmate from Congressional Quarterly.
"Roberts," he replied.
Justice Ginsburg, at least, was distinguishable by her high-pitched warble, and Justice Stephen Breyer was identifiable by the slight New England accent that differentiated him from colleagues with New York accents.
Being hidden back there in the dark recesses of the courtroom I felt less like a reporter and more like the Wizard of Oz in the scene where Toto tugs the curtain away. If only a friendly CairnTerrier had shown up to pull back the curtain between me and what I came to see.