It's possible, as any longtimer will attest, to become almost anesthetized to the grandeur of Official Washington. Almost. To snap out of it, come stand while the nine Supreme Court justices file into the courtroom from behind a red velvet curtain and begin their work of maintaining fairness throughout the land.
Anyone can hear oral arguments, in which attorneys on either side of an issue make presentations to the justices and are questioned -- sometimes vigorously -- about their positions on the case. But you do kind of have to know what you're doing to nab a spectator's seat.
The arguments are usually Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday mornings for two-week intervals while the Court is in session. The first trick is to call the public information office for guidance on which day would be best to come. If you're just interested in witnessing the process, it's best to go when low-profile cases are being heard. The 7,500-square-foot courtroom has limited seating, and the line can start forming at any time, so cases that have garnered significant media attention might require a pre-dawn wake-up call. For more run-of-the-mill cases, if you show up at the Court's front steps by 8, you should be fine. The guards will usher you into line, guide you through the security process and begin seating visitors between 9 and 9:30.
Two hour-long arguments are heard, beginning at 10, but there's a break in between if you're not interested in staying for both. But we bet you'll want to stay right where you are -- 120 minutes of live history doesn't feel like too much.
Tip: Before you go, visit http://www.oyez.org to bone up on the cases at hand. The Court's Web site (http://www.supremecourtus.gov) can be a little confusing, but this one offers a good synopsis of each case on the docket.
--Ellen McCarthy (Jan. 25, 2008)