The cases before the Supreme Court were momentous — the future of health care and same-sex marriage. A decision could come down on either one. So would-be witnesses to history started lining up in the wee hours Thursday for the few dozen seats available to the public.
Some are weight-shifters. Some are feet-shufflers. Others stretch out on the ground, legs long in front of them. The professionals bring lawn chairs and lots of snacks.
John Werner is a sitter. Arms wrapped around his knees, which are covered in practical black slacks, he has been perched on the cool marble curb in front of the Supreme Court since 4:30 in the morning. He probably didn’t need to get here so early — there are only about five people ahead of him. But he couldn’t risk missing a coveted spot inside the court because today could be the day.
The George Washington University law student wants to be there when the justices rule whether everyone, gay or straight, should be allowed to marry.
“If they don’t announce it today, we’ll make it a little earlier each time,” Werner says, looking remarkably dewy-eyed at the prospect of resetting his alarm for 3 a.m. on a Friday.
His friend Mary Stanfield, who just graduated from American University with a master’s degree in philosophy, says they will be more prepared if they have to come back. The waiting game can be physically draining — not to mention dehydrating.
“I had to take a Gatorade from someone in line,” Stanfield says, sloshing what’s left of the pink electrolyte elixir around in the bottle.
Despite the lack of refreshment, if a decision is announced, she says they will be ready to share the news. They may not have water, but there are smartphone chargers in their pockets.
“Priorities,” she laughs.
As the last wisps of cloud burn off overhead, Miesha Hill loosens her grip on the thin checkered scarf she has wrapped herself in. She gets $10 an hour to sit in line as a placeholder for someone coming at a more reasonable hour. She won’t go in once he gets here.
Today hasn’t been so bad; she has been stationed in her well-worn camping chair only for a couple of hours. In April, when the justices heard arguments in the same-sex marriage case, she waited for 36.
“It was freezing,” she recalls, laughing about the three blankets she wrapped herself in.
But the other line-goers made it fun, cracking jokes and handing out coffee and food. The rules of the line, she says, are not so strict that you can’t make a McDonald’s run. Once you’ve claimed a spot, your new line buddies will save your place.
Have to use the restroom? Hill suggests Union Station to the right, Starbucks to the left or the public facilities at the Capitol Visitor Center across the street. She has scouted out the best but refuses to use them herself.
“I got this thing with public restrooms since I was a kid,” she says. “I just wait.”
Orange tickets are handed out. The first 50 people in line are shuttled up the first eight steps and divided into three groups. The searing June sun, now fully overhead, scorches the white marble landing.
“I just want an iced tea,” Kyle Fritz exclaims in mock exasperation.
The talent manager and his husband, Jonathan Del Arco, an actor, have swung by the court after a night of partying at a White House LGBT Pride Month reception and before catching a flight home to Los Angeles.
Dressed in impeccable dark-blue suits, the couple of 23 years are unapologetic for not wearing more casual line-standing clothes.
“We’re gay!” Fritz says.
“It is really hot, though,” Del Arco concedes.
The line is beckoned inside.
Inside the court building, ticket-holders relish a chance to sit in a real chair, gobble up dry doughnuts and coffee from the cafeteria, and use the restroom.
Not everyone was able to hold out that long.
“I went to the Library of Congress and begged the security guard to let me pee,” says Diana Iwanski of Clermont, Fla.
On Monday, she says, she brought her knitting to help pass the time but so enjoyed talking to everyone around her that she didn’t touch it. There is a real spirit of camaraderie in line, she says.
As for why she’s there, “I want to be able to say ‘I’m glad I did,’ instead of ‘I wish I had,’ ” Iwanski says.
Her wife, Stephanie Jones, says that if there is no announcement on the marriage question today, she will book them on a later flight home. If the case is decided in their favor, the couple, who have known each other for 20 years and were married in 2008, will celebrate. But “I seriously doubt you’ll see us hanging from lampshades,” Jones says.
“We’re old,” Iwanski chimes in.
Two security checks and two lines later, the intrepid waiters are escorted into the courtroom and sit 12-deep in the long mahogany benches. The Dallas high school teacher sitting several rows from the front twitches her foot nervously.
“I might start crying,” she whispers to her friend.
A few spectators down, the young Asian American intern wishes out loud that he could watch the justices in a pickup basketball game.
“Roberts would be the ref,” he imagines.
A high-pitched buzzer cuts off all the impatient whispers. A hush falls over the court, and the justices enter from behind the red curtains.
The decision: The court ruled on the Affordable Care Act rather than same-sex marriage. Looks like Werner et al. will have to come back.