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October 11, 2002

Hi, I'm Jack Valenti

Wednesday morning, I went to the Supreme Court to hear arguments in Eldred v. Ashcroft, an important case regarding copyright law. In particular, it questioned the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which extended existing copyrights for an additional 20 years. Here's how the whole experience played out for me.

A Mistake I Will Regret For Years
Tuesday night, I did something against my nature... I decided an all-nighter would be a bad idea. Though it was approaching 3 and I needed to be up very soon, I decided to take a short nap. In college, I always welcomed the all-nighter. Recently (as recently as Monday morning, when I finished a paper as the sun rose), I have been trying to avoid them. Old age, I guess.

I overslept. By the time I got up, showered, and walked over to the Court, it was 7:20. I knew it was a lost cause when I left home, but I couldn't not go at that point.

Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Clause.
There were probably around 200 people in line at that point. They only give actual tickets to the first 75, then it's just first come, first served. I said hello to lots of folks I knew in line, but this is not a line one cuts in. So I stood at the back.

Around 7:30, the guards told everyone with tickets to be lined up in numerical order at 8:20. They could leave if they wanted, so long as they were back in line on time. A friend of mine walked by me on her way to get a cup of coffee with her friend. They had been there since just before 6 and had tickets 51 and 52 (when they arrived, there were 41 people ahead of them, but there had been some line shuffling shenanigans around 6:30 that cost them a few spots).

I told her how upset I was with myself for getting there late and how I had been following the case for a long time. She gave me her ticket (Admittedly, I had given her chocolate chip cookies the night before. The cookies were damn good, but I still thought this was a ridiculous act on her part). She said it meant more to me than to her. Some people are unbelievably nice. I didn't know what to say. Stunned, I found myself with a golden ticket into the legal chocolate factory! Lucky number 51.

I went to have a quick breakfast in the Supreme Court cafeteria with some friends who were holding tickets 70-75. I had been envying them just a few minutes before.

The Good Lord Giveth, The Good Lord Taketh Away.
Reading other first-hand accounts of the hearing online, there seems to be some uncertainty as to how many members of the public got seats for the argument. Let me assure you, the exact number was 50. It was most certainly not 51. Let that debate go.

The gallery has 220 seats. There are 50 reserved for the public for each argument. The other 170 are for friends of the court, members of the Supreme Court Bar, etc. For most cases, the Court does not use all of its seats, so more of the public can get in. This was not most cases. This case had a total of 38 amicus briefs filed and billions of dollars at stake.

Hi, I'm Jack Valenti
After they let the first 50 in, the rest of us stayed in line. They had to see if all of the invited guests showed up. There might be more seats. Hope springs eternal and all that. But the guests kept coming. "Yes, I have a ticket reserved. I think I'm supposed to go to the Marshall's office to pick it up. This is Congresswoman Bono. She has a ticket also." "Hi, I have a ticket reserved from Justice Kennedy." and so on. Then the clencher:

"Hi, I'm Jack Valenti. I'm on Scalia's list." Not "Justice Scalia." Not "I have a ticket reserved by Justice Scalia." No deference whatsoever. Just "I'm on Scalia's list." Whether or not the security guards knew or cared that he was the president of the MPAA didn't really matter. After he went in, those of us at the front of the line mocked him...

"Hi, I'm Jack Valenti. I bought a ticket from Scalia."
"Hi, I'm Jack Valenti. Antonin said to stop by here."
"Hi, I'm Jack Valenti. The VCR will destroy the movie industry."

But really, we were just jealous.

Kick 'em While They're Down.
At 10:00, the security guard told us they had closed the doors. We would not get seats. If and when they opened it up for three-minute observers, we would be first in line. With that, we resigned ourselves to a chance at 3 minutes of the hearing.

Shortly thereafter, one guard mentioned that there was some minor business happening before the Eldred hearing started and that after that, some people might leave. We might get seats yet!

Five minutes later, they started a line for three-minute observations. They made us choose... we could wait and have a chance at getting a seat, or we could get in line for the quick pass through. Even the three-minute line could only accommodate a limited number of people, so we had to decide right then. The inhumanity of it all.

Three Very Important Minutes In My Life.
My new front-of-the-line friends and I caved and went in for three minutes. (It turned out to be the right move... no one else got a regular seat). Through two security checks. No electronics. No note-taking. Into the courtroom. It was understated and overwhelming at the same time. It is not overly large. The Justices are not that far away. Their bench is not really that high. But it's all the more impressive for how close you are. It's not like TV at all. I had been told a lot of this by one of my professors who has argued 11 cases before the Court, but I was still in awe as I took it all in.

In three minutes, I heard seven Justices ask questions of Professor Lessig, the attorney for the appellant, Eric Eldred. It is a fast-paced conversation. Everyone except Scalia and Thomas was involved, and Thomas is never involved anyway.

I am unbelievably, incredibly thankful that I had attended the moot that Lessig did at Georgetown the previous week. I had heard all of the arguments. I knew the context for the discussion that was going on as we entered. Some of the quotes in the news coverage were while I was in the courtroom.

It was a phenomenal experience. I'm slowly turning into a Supreme Court junkie, reading about decisions, learning about the Justices, etc. But in three minutes, the whole legal field passed before my eyes. I mentioned in previous entries being starstruck by life in Washington. That was nothing. Three minutes goes by very, very quickly, but it is enough time to inspire a law student.

After the arguments were over, everyone went outside. Professor Lessig, Eldred, and Congresswoman Bono answered questions from the press and other various onlookers. Lessig's friends and family hugged and congratulated him on completing his first argument before the Supreme Court. Lots of strangers did the same. I waited a while, and when most of it had died down and he had had a moment to breathe (if only a short moment), I introduced myself, congratulated him, and thanked him for all the work he had done for something I consider to be important. I mentioned that I had observed the moot but hadn't gotten a seat in the Court for the actual argument, and asked how he had changed tacks based on some of the criticism from the moot. We chatted for a minute or two.

He had much to do. A celebratory lunch. Speaking engagements all over town for two or three straight days. I had to go home and finish a draft before my afternoon Legal Research & Writing section and find someone to mooch notes off of for that morning's Contracts class.

Posted by buddha at October 11, 2002 12:19 AM


You are such a Rock Star!

Posted by: shoop at October 11, 2002 09:17 AM

for proof that i am a rockstar, note that i appear in the pages of the industry press:

Buddha strikes a pose.

Posted by: dan at October 11, 2002 12:39 PM

ROCK ON! JUBU in the hizouse!

Posted by: shoop at October 11, 2002 04:06 PM

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