Supreme Court faces an unprecedented frenzy during health reform arguments

The frenzy generated by the Supreme Court’s arguments on the healthcare reform law next week is likely to dwarf anything the court has ever seen.

Lawmakers and interest groups plan to stage protests and events outside the court nearly nonstop, creating a circus-like atmosphere for a case that could redefine the limits of federal power. 

A throng of lawyers and reporters, meanwhile, are practically beating down the court’s doors to try and secure a seat inside the chamber to witness the historic arguments on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

ADVERTISEMENT
Many legal experts say the ruling on the healthcare law could be one of the most consequential in the court’s history. The oral arguments in the case are the longest in 45 years, and the legal and political stakes are enormous. The court is expected to deliver its ruling in June, just months before the presidential election.

All of those factors are feeding a media frenzy that has already reached historic proportions, according to Drexel University law professor Lisa McElroy.

“This is just unprecedented. The only thing that even compares is maybe Bush v. Gore,” she said, referring to the 2000 case that helped settle the presidential election. “This is going to be on a scale we’ve never seen before.” 

Most reporters haven’t found out whether they’ll have one of the coveted gallery seats during oral arguments. The general public will have an even harder time getting a glimpse — space in the chambers is limited, and even some of the attorneys who worked on briefs in the case haven’t been able to snag a spot.

McElroy is a prominent advocate for televising Supreme Court arguments, and she said the intense interest in this case might highlight the public’s relatively limited access to the court’s proceedings.

The justices have historically opposed cameras in the courtroom and denied requests to make an exception for the healthcare case. The court will instead release same-day audio recordings of the healthcare arguments — a speedy timetable for the court, which normally releases audio at the end of each week. 

The justices have traditionally opted for a weekly release in part for the same reasons they oppose TV cameras, McElroy said. By Friday, the media have generally moved on from Supreme Court arguments that occurred a few days earlier.

“The justices don’t want to be part of the news cycle,” she said. “They don’t want to be all over the news. They’re not interested in that.”

Even with same-day audio, the court is largely insulated from the fast-and-furious media landscape that Congress and the executive branch have to deal with. Reporters and visitors can’t bring in anything electronic — meaning no taking notes on a laptop, no checking quotes against your own recording, and no Twitter.

Those policies are longstanding. But a public increasingly accustomed to instantaneous coverage might be surprised to run into a virtual blackout while the healthcare law’s fate is being debated.

Mary-Rose Papandrea, a law professor at Boston College, said the justices probably feel like they’ve given the public all the access they need.  

“I think they think, ‘We’re giving you plenty. You get the opinion, you get the audio — what else do you need if you want to understand us?’ ” she said.

And if the justices want to keep themselves out of the daily news grind, there is no shortage of outside groups lining up to fill the void.

Supporters of the healthcare law have scheduled press conferences and rallies outside the court during all three days of oral arguments. And a group of Republican lawmakers led by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is holding a rally to criticize the law shortly after the court finishes its second day of arguments.

Supreme Court public information officer Kathleen Arberg said the court’s police force is prepared to handle massive crowds outside the courthouse next week. U.S. Capitol Police and the Washington police department will be asked to help out as needed.

“Certainly we expect that there will be larger crowds, but we don’t know yet how large,” she told The Hill.

The crowd outside the court building could assemble long before the arguments begin.

Due to the court’s limited seating, would-be spectators have traditionally lined up the night before high-profile arguments to try and make it into the courtroom.

Debbie Siegelbaum contributed.


— This post was updated at 2:05 p.m. An earier version incorrectly stated that Mary-Rose Papandrea teaches law at Boston University. She teaches at Boston College.