Sleepover at the Supreme Court

Mireya Navarro (left) and researcher Brianna Cea of the Brennan Center. Photo courtesy of Mireya Navarro
by mireya navarro

I’ve never camped overnight in line to see anything — not for the Rolling Stones or Prince, not for Black Friday or iPhone sales, not for Harry Potter books or Hamilton tickets.

But one night last month I found myself curled up in a sleeping bag on a sidewalk in Washington, D.C. in the wee hours of the morning. I did it for the hottest ticket in town — oral arguments before the United States Supreme Court in Department of Commerce v. New York, a case challenging the Trump administration’s plans to add a question about citizenship status to Census 2020.

It wasn’t even 10 p.m. and the line had already grown to about two dozen people. First up on the sidewalk was a bearded man who said he was a Census Bureau demographer but declined to give his name. He said he had been camped out by the hedges since 1 p.m. to be sure he’d make it inside the court chamber the next morning.

The Census Bureau has a constitutional mandate to count every person in the country, citizens and noncitizens alike. Its research shows that a question about citizenship will prompt many people in immigrant communities to avoid filling out the census form. New York stands to lose Congressional seats and federal funds if that happens and there’s an undercount, so it is leading the charge among more than a dozen states to prevent it.

I work for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, which has filed an amicus brief opposing the question in the universal census form and supporting the states and other opponents in the consolidated Supreme Court case.

Only the first 50 people in the public line were guaranteed a spot inside. Brennan Center researcher Brianna Cea and I had planned to tough it out, armed with lounge chairs and sleeping bags, ear plugs, eye mask, neck pillow, PowerBars and water. Cea, along with Brennan Center counsel Thomas Wolf, had written the definitive history of the citizenship question, published in the Georgetown Law Journal, and she was hoping the research would be cited during the arguments. I just wanted to see the justices in action.

So did the law students and the nonprofit organization interns, the court buffs, the tourists and the people who had hired sitters — at $40 an hour — to wait in line for them. One student brought an air mattress and powered it from the electrical outlet reserved for the media near the court steps.

We were the hardcore, the Navy SEALs of Mission SCOTUS, unlike the lawyers resting in their comfortable beds at the nearby Capitol Hill Hotel because they had their own, much shorter “bar line” they could join in the morning.

Outdoors, few of us slept. Even in the dead of the night it wasn’t quiet, with clanking and banging from a construction site near the Capitol across the street. It wasn’t comfortable, with the sleeping bag offering little respite against the hardness of the pavement. It wasn’t even dry, despite clear skies; the sprinklers on SCOTUS’ manicured lawn came on shortly after 3 a.m., waking half of us up and sending us scurrying to escape the spray.

I walked back to the hotel, about ten minutes away through deserted blocks, where I, too, had booked a room. It became indispensable for bathroom runs, to download video for our social media and to power the phone.

At some point the birds started chirping. We welcomed the morning daylight wet and unwashed, a sharp contrast in our sneakers and backpacks with the smartly dressed lawyers who started lining up at dawn.

“How’d the night go?” Wolf texted at 4:54 a.m. “Can you see the lawyers’ line?”

Yep. The lawyers had started showing up early while our line had extended to include more than 100 people.

Things started moving quickly after 7:30 a.m. A guard ushered the two lines to the plaza in front of the Supreme Court building and handed us tickets — Cea and I made #31 and #32. We high-fived each other and took selfies against the white marble backdrop.

We got inside and were told to wait in the cafeteria on the ground floor, where we had a celebrity sighting. There, in the flesh, was Justice Elena Kagan.

“Is that Justice Kagan?” I blurted out to Cea.

Kagan heard me and gave us a beatific smile before disappearing behind a side door.

The SCOTUS line continued upstairs, where we were led to coin-operated lockers to unload our belongings — and then past a security line into the relatively small (82 by 91 feet) court chamber framed by marble columns. We sat in the back but had a center view of the bench.

At 10 a.m. sharp, some 12 hours after we’d found our spot in line, the court was in session. The justices took to their chairs (Hi, RBG! Go get ‘em, Justice Sotomayor! Thinking of you, Justice Brennan!), and just as promptly the exhausted camper to my right nodded off.

At least now we all wait for the decision, expected in late June, in the comfort of our own beds.