Face to Face With the Supreme Court

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Demonstrators crowd the plaza in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building

Barbara Perry, professor of government at Virginia's Sweet Briar College and a constitutional law and Supreme Court expert, was among the privileged few to view these historic Supreme Court proceedings firsthand. Here are her thoughts immediately following the conclusion of Friday's oral arguments.

Q: What was it like to sit inside the courtroom?

A: It was truly electric. There's no other way to describe the atmosphere in the court. I've been in there many times before, but I've never seen oral arguments like this before. The fact that it brought together such an interesting composite of people — Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy sitting together, all the Gore children. And I happened to sit with Judge Burton, the head of the Palm Beach canvassing board. He's a delightful person.

Q: Was the Court more combative than usual?

A: No, I'd say this was their usual level of combativeness. I thought the proceedings went true to form. While it was very clear it was a charged atmosphere, I didn't see any changes in the way they normally behave — all eight [of the Justices who generally ask questions; Clarence Thomas rarely does] spoke up frequently and asked a lot of probing questions.

Q: Did you get a sense of how the Justices were leaning?

A: Well, if you look at the questions they asked, you can get a sense of where the camps may divide. Of course, as always, you have to look at each question with a grain of salt: The Justices can ask any questions for any reason — strategic, intellectual, et cetera. For example, they may ask a question to redirect the line of debate, or in order to make a point to their colleagues.

But given that caveat, their questions seem to group the Justices into the following camps: Souter, Ginsburg and Stevens seemed to be leaning toward upholding the Florida Supreme Court ruling.

Rehnquist and Scalia were very skeptical of the ruling.

And Kennedy, O'Connor and possibly Breyer seemed concerned about whether the case should be there at all. This is particularly significant because they could try to dismiss the case altogether — I could see them in conference trying to argue the case was improvidently granted.

If these very fractious camps hold up, and accurately reflect how the Justices feel about the case, you have to wonder how the Court will come to a decision — it's got to be an especially daunting task given that they want to present as united a front as possible.

Q: So what happens now?

A: They could be sitting down to lunch and beginning a discussion right now. Usually, if they hear arguments on a Wednesday, for example, they'll have a Thursday or Friday conference. But of course, this case is following a much faster time frame.

Q: How did the lawyers do? Especially Tribe and Olson?

A: These are very experienced lawyers, and although they were both in a really tough place I thought they did very well. But I have to say I was a bit surprised by the frequency with which counsel took visible hits — when the Justices' questions seemed to throw them off a bit.

As I was sitting there with Judge Burton, waiting for the proceedings to begin, we were wondering what it must be like to be sitting up there, waiting to argue this case. The butterflies must have been out in full force.