The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Those who waited, through cold and rain, finally get precious seats for Supreme Court history

More than 40 people set up camp outside the Supreme Court the day before it hears a case about Texas’s abortion clinic regulations. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

The first one arrived at 11 a.m. — on Monday.

An older woman, armed with a lawn chair, an umbrella, a vast blue tarp and strong opinions, set up camp just to the right of the Supreme Court’s marble steps. And she waited.

Forty-seven hours to go. Thirty six. Twenty four. Twelve. Ten.

By midnight Wednesday, a crowd of about 40 people sat in line behind her, huddling under blankets and trash bags against the drizzle that turned into a cold rain before the the sun finally came out and the doors opened for the 10 a.m. event.

They were grandmothers and high school seniors, political science professors and amateur Supreme Court enthusiasts, students, activists, lawyers, feminists who call themselves “big raging liberals” and ones who say they are “unapologetically pro-life.” They came from an office just around the corner, from New York, from Texas, from Japan by way of Georgetown Law School. There was a woman who had an abortion and a woman who almost did; both are happy with their decision, both say their lives have been irrevocably changed.

They were united by the cold, the wet and the hope of being in the audience as the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the most important abortion case in decades.

Then the sun came up.

Four hours to go. Then Three. Two. One.

By 9 a.m. Wednesday, the dreary, drenched scene before the court had turned raucous. The clouds cleared, TV cameras glittered in the sunlight, hundreds of demonstrators thronged before the marble steps, Capitol police officers on motorcycles zoomed back and forth on First Street in front of the court, coralling strays back onto the sidewalk.

The speeches were difficult to hear over the whir of activity, the rev of police vehicles, the swirl of conversation. But the cheers cut through clearly.

And the people in line, the ones who had been there since midnight or earlier?

They were finally where they’d been waiting to be: inside the court.

“We’re here because we want to be where history is made,” the Japanese law student, Ayaka Iyomaga, had said nine hours earlier, when the prospect of a seat — and a roof over her head — were still uncertain.

That, and she was being graded, her friend and fellow law student Jutha Saovabha pointed out. Iyomaga has to attend a hearing at the court for one of her classes.

Sure, she retorted, peering at Saovabha through rain-stained glasses. But she didn’t have to choose this one.

This case is Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, an abortion clinic’s challenge of a Texas rule that officials say ensures the health of women who chose the procedure but that critics argue is an attempt to regulate clinics out of existence. The debate in the court is mired in legal and medical particulars. But on the sidewalk just outside, the discussions were expansive.

Arguments in Supreme Court abortion case pitched to audience of one

“We’re just really passionate about women’s rights,” said Avi Brach-Neufeld, 18, a high school senior from Silver Spring, Md.

He had spent the night sprawled under a tarp with his two best friends, Josh Goldberg and Mattias Lundberg. They’ve known each other for most of their lives, long before they could pronounce the phrase “bodily autonomy,” let alone explain what it means — something they have no problem doing now.

“Fundamentally, this is a case about issues on a much larger scale,” said Lundberg, 18, of Bethesda, Md. “It’s about centralizing power in older, male politicians.”

“As teenage guys, it’s our responsibility to stand up to it,” Brach-Neufeld piped in. “We have to say we know what is right.”

All three hope the court will strike down Texas’s abortion regulations after hearing the arguments Wednesday. But that’s not the only reason they headed here immediately after school let out Tuesday, ditching homework, family dinners and the comfort of their beds (much to their parents’ chagrin) in favor of sleeping bags on wet cement.

Facing the prospect of leaving for college in the fall — without one another — the three Supreme Court “nerds” decided that attending an oral argument would be an appropriate last hurrah.

To choose their case, “we voted democratically,” says Goldberg, 18, also from Silver Spring. Bach-Neufeld was initially reticent about the all-night vigil Hellerstedt would require, but like any good teenage political science enthusiast, he acceded to the majority.

He took in the scene around him in the early hours of Wednesday morning: An empty pizza box, two gallon jugs of water and a carton of Cheez-Its sat on the damp pavement. The Capitol looked baroque beneath its lattice of scaffolding. The marble hulk of the Supreme Court loomed imposingly on his other side.

The rain began to fall in earnest, and the three boys tussled over the tarp, pulling it closer to their heads.

Did Brach-Neufeld regret the decision now?

He grinned.

“Not a bit.”

There’s a camaraderie to what Goldberg called “the community of the cold and wet.” Someone ordered pizza and shared the spare slices among the other line-sitters. Those with boxes of black plastic trash bags distributed the extras to people who had no insulation against the rain. They chatted about what brought them there. They shared commiserating grins.

The night deepened, and the line-sitters settled in.

Justin Atkinson, 21, a junior at the University of Texas at Austin, dug through his backpack for his third bottle of Dr Pepper and his hardcover copy of Steven Breyer’s latest book — he got it signed by the justice last week. Joan Heider, 27, a public relations specialist for a law firm in Philadelphia and self-proclaimed “big raging liberal feminist” showed the pair of signs she made with a friend before taking the train down to Washington on Tuesday evening. They read “We left the kitchen” and “to come to this rally” — a reference to a remark made last month by Ohio governor and Republican presidential candidate John Kasich.

“I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks,” she said of the hours-long wait, and the payoff she hoped would come in the morning. “I want to be a person in that room, standing up for a woman’s right to choose.”

By 1 a.m., most of the line was asleep, their sleeping bags pulled over their faces to block out the weather and the streetlights’ yellow glare. The rain intensified, the wind picked up. The Supreme Court glowed white against a bruise-colored sky.

On the building’s steps in the middle of the night stood about a dozen people, mostly college kids, their heads bowed in prayer.

“This is a really super important issue for the health of women,” Michele Haggard, a student at George Mason University who supports the Texas law. “We wanted to be out here to pray for the women and for the case the night before.”

Unlike the line-sitters, the group wasn’t trying to get into the oral arguments. But they did hope they could exert some influence on the case from outside the building.

“This is a small group of people who are … really calling on God to move on this issue,” said Michele Hendrickson. As a coordinator for the advocacy group Students for Life of America, Hendrickson helped organize the gathering.

Hendrickson said she’s motivated by the horror stories she’s heard about unsafe abortion clinics — like the grisly and in some cases, deadly procedures at Kermit Gosnell’s clinic in Philadelphia. Those stories, and prayer, will keep her up.

But a vigil needs non-spiritual sustenance too: Some students were playing music on instruments they brought with them. Others clutched cups of coffee. Hendrickson brought cupcakes — “They’re gluten free!” she offered.

Aimee Murphy, executive director of the Life Matters Journal, also wants the court to uphold the Texas regulation. But she was not trying to change minds with prayer.

Instead, she hoped her presence would do that job. Murphy is a “pro-life feminist,” a label she proudly wore on the pink sweatshirt beneath her raincoat. She grew up in California, socially progressive, politically liberal. She was the kind of young woman who would quickly call out behavior she saw as sexist, and she was, “of course, pro-choice,” she said.

But then she had a pregnancy scare at age 16, and her boyfriend told her he’d consider killing himself, her and their unborn child if she refused to get an abortion.

“It became so clear that nonviolence had to be the way,” she said. Murphy eventually found out that she was not, in fact, pregnant, but the experience changed her. She was still liberal, she said, still a feminist. But now she was pro-life.

“There’s a lot of division here, and we want to represent an alternative,” she said. “Fight the ideology that women need to kill their children to be successful.”

A brush with abortion is also what brought Farah Diaz-Tello, a Texan who now works as a lawyer for an abortion rights nonprofit in New York, to the back of the line about 1 a.m. Wednesday, just as the drizzle turned into a downpour.

Unlike Murphy, Diaz-Tello had the procedure — at a Whole Woman’s Health clinic in Texas that closed in the wake of the state law.

“It was really my abortion that allowed me to become an attorney,” Diaz-Tello said. “It’s very important to me that women in Texas have access to the same.”

She had no sleeping bag, no tarp, no raincoat — just an umbrella and some plastic bags. Diaz-Tello is now the mother of three children, and her youngest was sick Tuesday. It was all she could do to get on the train down to Washington in time to grab a spot in line.

Diaz-Tello was one of the few all-nighters still left outside Wednesday morning. An initial batch of 50 people had been allowed into the court. More would be admitted later, if there were any seats left.

Just four people from the front of the line, Diaz-Tello shifted in place, stomping her feet to stay warm.

“We’re still here, still hopeful,” she said.

If she didn’t make it inside for the oral arguments, Diaz-Tello planned to stay outside and protest. She hadn’t come all this way for nothing.

“I’m here to tell the Supreme Court that women aren’t asking them for anything,” she said “… If they want to restrict women’s reproductive rights, they’re going to have to take them.”

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This post has been updated.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled the names of Avi Brach-Neufeld’s and Joan Heider. The post is now corrected.