Supreme Court and the business of waiting in line

at 09:54 AM ET, 03/25/2012


On Friday afternoon, the first three people in line to hear the Supreme Court’s oral arguments on the health reform law chat with a Supreme Court police officer.
In 2005, Kevin D. Rollins earned $350 to do nothing.

Or, it was at least something that looked a lot like nothing: Rollins stood outside the Supreme Court of the United States for 14 hours, to secure a seat in the landmark eminent domain case, Kelo v. New London. The seat wasn’t for himself. Rollins was paid by the Institute of Justice to hold spots overnight for some of the defendants in the case, who had been unable to secure seats themselves.

It was a chilly night in February, and Rollins, a law student at the time, spent pretty much all of it right outside the Supreme Court. There was one break, for dinner, served at the nearby Heritage Foundation.

“It was me and a bunch of law students,” Rollins, now a writer and economist, remembers. “It was like 30 or 40 of us, like a little mob. We were lined up all night and it was quite interesting. Definitely a learning experience.”

The Supreme Court’s oral arguments on the health reform law, which open Monday, are among the most anticipated in decades. When I went to the Supreme Court Friday afternoon, there were already eight people in line. And at least some of them do not plan to see the arguments themselves.

Three told me that they were being paid to wait there, although declined to be identified. One said he was holding a spot for his boss, but would not speak to whether he was being compensated. And two wouldn’t say anything at all. Monica Hammond, who currently holds the 11th spot in line and is blogging about it (you should be reading her here), writes that “The line standers are working in shifts - usually about 6-8 hours.” On Saturday, she saw a scuffle between two line standing companies over who had which spots.

It’s not exactly a challenge to find a paid line-stander in the nation’s capitol. Linestanding.com, a division of Quick Messenger Services, boasts “competitive prices and knowledge of hearing schedules and different types of hearings and line standing requirements exceeds that of our competitors.”

Washington DC Line Standing offers 20 years of line-standing experience, over which its employees “have developed significant expertise in all of the sometimes complex details of seat holding and linestanding.” That expertise comes with a $50 per hour price tag for waiters outside the Supreme Court (but just $40 at Congressional hearings). I called their general line Saturday to learn more, but was told the day was incredibly busy, and they did not have time for an interview.

The line standing industry has sometimes faced adversity. In 2007, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) pursued legislation that would have barred paid line-standing at Congressional hearings. “I find it troubling that everyone in this room is getting paid by someone,” she said at a hearing that year where, according to the Wall Street Journal, “some line-standers had been parked outside the doors since 3 a.m., waiting for seats at a hearing on consumer issues in the wireless industry.”

The line-standing industry rallied against Sen. McCaskill’s proposal -which never became law - contending that their industry created jobs that stood to be eliminated.

“Enacting this bill and forcing the lobbyists to ‘Get in Line’ themselves would not change their need to get into these hearings,” wrote Mark Owner of QMS services, which owns Linestanding.com. “By eliminating an industry that employs hundreds of entry-level workers, and instead creating positions for even more lobbyists, the bill would have the opposite effect of that intended.”

As for Rollins, he contends as a line-stander he provided a valuable service: He secured seats for some of the defendants in the case.

“I was standing in line for people involved in the case,” he says. “These poor people had been through heck, and if someone can hold a place for them in line, that’s good, I think. There’s nothing wrong with that, and nothing illegal about it. In all honesty, it’s hard to decide who should get in to the arguments since space is so limited.”

How do those actually waiting to get into the Court feel about those? That question gets put to Kathie McClure, a 57-year-old lawyer from Atlanta, who is fifth in line for the health care arguments. She was the only person there who would confirm that she was not being paid to wait.

She didn’t necessarily have a problem with those nearby holding spots for others. What frustrated her the most was the fact that the Supreme Court oral arguments were so hard to get into, with just a few dozen members of the public allowed, that people were driven to this kind of behavior.

“What I think is they should have allowed cameras in the courtroom,” she says. “It’s absurd that I have to travel to Washington, D.C. and sleep on the sidewalk for three days to get a seat at the Supreme Court of the United States. This is our judicial branch, our institution, and for all practical purposes closed off to the public.”

 
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