You know where to find Graham Blackman-Harris on the first Monday in October: In line.
By Robert Barnes,
Meet the least cynical man in Washington. He can’t stay long.
His name is Graham Blackman-Harris, and you’ll find him on the first Monday in October where he’s been for the past two decades: waiting in line to enter the Supreme Court. Which he describes alternately as “fun” and “fascinating” and “magnificent.”
He took the day off from his job as a Federal Express manager in Jersey City to be at the court’s opening argument of the term; he plans vacation days around important cases and court milestones. He spent the weekend in Washington so he could be at the court’s marble plaza by 5:30 a.m. to ensure himself a spot as one of the first 50 in line.
“This will be the 20th year, and I’ve only missed two first Mondays,” Blackman-Harris said last month in an interview at a Jersey City diner. “One I was sick, and the other one I was closing on my house.”
To ask why he fell in love with the Supreme Court is to receive a puzzled response about why everyone else has not.
“Every American should see the Supreme Court in action,” he said. “Anyone going to the court will see we have a magnificent array of talent on that court.”
For Blackman-Harris, a self-described “C-SPAN junkie,” the fascination began with a trip to Washington to see the Capitol. Not much was going on, and a guide suggested that he go across the street.
“I could see Thurgood Marshall on the bench,” he realized. “I was hooked. That voice! His voice just echoed off the marble. It was awesome.”
“I had never read an opinion before, but it was in the newspaper — it must have taken up four pages,” Blackman-Harris said. “I couldn’t understand a lot of it, because, you know, it had a lot of legalese in it and it referred to cases, and if you don’t know the cases, you have to go back and look them up.”
Now, he speaks of the Casey “plurality opinion” and refers to “the old chief,” which is how court insiders refer to longtime Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died in 2005. He reads opinions online and listens to the audio recordings of the court’s oral arguments.
An immigrant falls in love
Blackman-Harris, 45, has the zeal of a convert. He was born in Barbados and accompanied his family to New Jersey when he was in high school. He said he became a citizen in 1992.
“I got really interested in American history in high school,” he said. “I find the American story to be a fascinating one — love it, love it!”
The attraction of the court, he said, is its authority.
“I love the finality,” he said. “When the court speaks, that’s the final answer to the question. Now, that’s not really true, but it is the answer to that question.”
Blackman-Harris has attended the first appearance of each new justice since Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993, with the exception of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. (Alito’s first appearance came in a January session of the court.)
He was there when Justice John Paul Stevens, then the court’s senior justice, escorted new Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. down the steps on Roberts’s first day, and he notes that he had to make a special trip to see Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Her debut was not in October but for a special rehearing of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in September 2009. “That’s going to be a trivia question someday,” he said.
His is not an easy task. The court has room for only several hundred spectators, and many of the seats are held for members of the bar, groups that have made reservations or those who have a direct interest in the case. The remainder are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, and sometimes no more that 50 seats are available. People wait in line for hours, or for really big cases, overnight.
On occasion, Blackman-Harris brings a sleeping bag “because that marble is cold, okay?” he said. “I’ve had to defrost my feet several times. And that’s why I love the Supreme Court cafeteria.”
Mike Sacks knows the difficulty as well. He spent part of law school at Georgetown University trying to be the first in line for important cases and writing about it for a blog he created called “First One at One First,” a reference to the court’s address: 1 First St. NE.
Sacks met people who had interest in a specific case, lawyers interested in an issue, law students interested in their new profession.
“Graham, on the other hand, was just a big fan of the institution,” said Sacks, adding that Blackman-Harris has a remarkable “hope and enthusiasm for the country.”
Sacks also knows what it’s like to get hooked on the court; he is giving up a job at a big law firm to become the Supreme Court correspondent for the Huffington Post.
A fan’s favorites
Blackman-Harris said he is a political moderate, so perhaps it is not surprising that his favorite on the current court is Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who is often the deciding vote when the court’s conservatives and liberals split.
“I can understand his opinions,” Blackman-Harris said. “He makes it clear.”
His all-time favorite? “Justice [Hugo] Black, come on!” he exclaimed. “First Amendment! I’m a First Amendment guy.”
Sometimes the court lets him down. He was disappointed in the Citizens United case, which held that a prohibition on campaign expenditures by corporations and labor unions violated political speech rights.
“Money is not speech and a corporation is not a person,” Blackman-Harris said, aligning himself with the four dissenters and separating him — temporarily — from Kennedy. “My Constitution does not say that.”
He’s never met one of the nine — “I would be blown away,” he said — and he wishes the court would relent and televise its proceedings.
That is not a complaint, though.
As he explained, “You can’t have everything.”