Family Law Unraveled

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Ruth

Friday, May 09, 2014

On Monday, May 5th, I was admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court. I wish I could say it was because one of my cases is headed there and I needed to get admitted in order to argue before the Justices, but that’s not the reason. Here’s why I decided to do it:  It’s ceremonial.  It’s an excuse for a trip to D.C.  It gets you a reserved seat at oral argument in the future. And mostly, it seemed like an enjoyable social occasion with my colleagues–I went with two other lawyers from my firm as part of a larger delegation from the Philadelphia Bar Association. Heading into the Supreme Court, I was enjoying the artwork and thinking about the luncheon afterwards.

It turned out I was incredibly moved by the experience.  When we filed into the courtroom, I was both impressed by its beauty and oddly comfortable: the familiarity of the bench, the empty black chairs elevated behind them, the podium with its timing lights, the court clerks sitting on the side, the whispered tones of lawyers chatting in the seated gallery.  It may be the highest one in the land, but it’s still a courtroom, and this is the water I swim in.  I felt both honored to be there and completely at home. 

Our delegation was seated in the front row. The Justices took the bench, coming from behind the curtain in order of seniority.  Justice Sotomayor was absent, but the other eight were lined up before us, as close as I am to the judge when I sit at counsel table in Philadelphia Family Court. Justices Breyer, Thomas, Scalia, Roberts, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Alito, and Kagan. All in a row, all in black robes, such towering figures and yet so ordinary and just so, well, familiarly judge-like. Two opinions were read from the bench, one of which turned out to be a major first amendment case, Town of Greece vs. Galloway.  The historical importance of what was going down slowly started to dawn on me as I listened to an affable Justice Kennedy chattily explain that permitting prayer at the beginning of town council meetings is merely ceremonial in nature, and thus not an impermissible government establishment of religion (or, as Andy Borowitz later described it “In Landmark Decision, Supreme Court Strikes Down Main Reason Country Was Started.”)  Justices Breyer, Kagan and Ginsburg–all dissenters, along with the absent Justice Sotomayor, of course– had poker faces.  Bad law, yes, but just the same: History was being made! And I was there listening to it! 

As that was sinking in, the admissions began. Sixty-three lawyers, delegations from the Brooklyn Bar Association, Fordham Law School Alumni Association, and the Judge Advocate General–military lawyers in full uniform–and us.  Every age, gender, racial and ethnic group were represented; a complete cross-section of America, all lawyers, all standing before the Justices, all becoming members of this revered institution, the epicenter. Each of us stood as our name was called. Family members gawked. Chief Justice Roberts granted the motions, we raised our hands and were administered the oath.  My eyes welled.

When the session was over, our little delegation was escorted back to the lawyers lounge where we had left our phones and purses and empty cups of coffee.   Lots of excited chatter with my colleagues ensued and then a hush came over the group as we saw Justice Ginsburg walking into the room. Looking all of eighty pound soaking wet, a little hunched over but impeccably dressed, she had graciously come to pay us a visit.  (Actually, her law clerk told us later that she was intending to pay a visit to the University of Pennsylvania law school group. But they weren’t there. Our lucky day.)  

After a nano-second of awed silence, we all began talking. With Ruth Bader Ginsburg. About the first amendment. We got to dish on the majority opinion we had just heard ten minutes earlier, apparent unanimity among the liberal ranks of the Philly Bar delegation. “The town council tried to get a rabbi to give one of the prayers,” she said drily, “but they couldn’t find one.” Ruth!  This tiny woman, this powerhouse of a lawyer, this feminist icon whose legal work directly led to many of us in the courtroom that day becoming lawyers in the first place, here she was. I was star struck. And speechless. My partner Megan, who is never speechless, asked to shake her hand.  Ruth obliged, told us she had to go see the Brooklyn Bar Association, turned around, and disappeared.

“That was SO GREAT!” my husband said after she left.  All I could do was nod. It was so great.  And I am so proud to be a member of the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States.

At the U.S. Supreme Court with Megan Watson and Lisa Shapson with Sandra Day O'Connor behind us!

At the U.S. Supreme Court with Megan Watson, Lisa Shapson and Sandra Day O’Connor behind us!

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