COURT’S BIG WEEK

Justices are deaf to social media’s sound and fury

New York Times News ServiceJune 23, 2013 

— Chad Griffin, a gay rights advocate, has arrived twice this month at the Supreme Court with his bags packed, ready to fly off to a rally if the court rules on same-sex marriage.

Ted Olson, a veteran lawyer who argued the case, will be sitting in court on Monday, just in case. And Lisa Blatt, a Supreme Court litigator, is one of many Washington court-watchers who will be eagerly refreshing her Web browser.

They will be joined, if Twitter is any guide, by thousands of anxious, curious people across the country eagerly waiting for the court to rule on a remarkable number of major cases with huge implications.

With just days remaining in its 2013 schedule, the court has left dangling its considered opinions on gay marriage, affirmative action and the nation’s voting rights laws.

“We all crave information instantaneously,” said Blatt, a lawyer at Arnold & Porter who has argued 33 cases before the court, including one that is still pending this year.

Last Monday, and again last Thursday, she found herself scouring legal blogs, looking for whatever clues might exist.

“I always thought those people were strange, and there I was, doing it,” she said. “People are dying to know something that they can’t.”

In a city beset by leaks, the high court’s annual rulings remain stubbornly opaque until they are handed out (on paper, first) by the court’s public relations staff. Meanwhile, the nine justices have the luxury of appearing publicly oblivious to the swirl of social media, the angst of Washington’s legal community and the voracious appetite of America’s 24-hour news cycle.

Many Washington institutions are making the high-tech transition; even the chairman of the Federal Reserve holds regular news conferences now.

But like the Kremlinologists of the Cold War, who deduced Communist power struggles by a leader’s presence on the Red Square reviewing stand, modern-day court watchers can do little more than speculate about when and how the court might rule.

“You never know when it’s going to come down,” said Olson, a former solicitor general who would know, if anyone would. A court observer for decades, he has shown up on each of the last three decision days at the court. “I just try to prepare for anything.”

Griffin is the founder of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the organization that filed the legal challenge to Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in the state.

Four times in the last two weeks, the court has issued decisions in other cases but not about that law’s constitutionality.

Each time, Griffin has returned home and unpacked, lest his suits become wrinkled.

On Monday, Griffin will return once again, joined by the four plaintiffs in the case, who plan to stay in Washington until the high court rules, before they return home to California. If the court overturns the ballot initiative, the couples hope to have a wedding ceremony as soon as possible.

Across California, gay rights organizations have started many early mornings refreshing their Web pages for news and then going back to bed. Staff members at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center have elaborate plans for action after any outcome, and they are preparing to head into the office in the early morning as they anticipate widespread celebration or protest in West Hollywood.

And lawyers at the office of California’s attorney general, Kamala D. Harris, have been preparing for weeks with legal memos anticipating a wide range of possible outcomes.

The Web is ready, too. Last Thursday, after the justices once again did not issue rulings in any of the biggest cases, news organizations blared the “news” to their followers. “BREAKING NEWS: No major decisions from Supreme Court today,” the Yahoo News site announced on its Twitter feed. One Twitter message wryly observed: “Clearly all Supreme Court judges were unpopular kids in high school and, excited by all the attention now, are gonna drag this out.”

A year ago, in the minutes before the court announced its decision on President Barack Obama’s health care law, Twitter users posted more than 13,000 messages a minute about the court. (By comparison, there were 160,000 a minute at the height of the presidential debate in Denver last year.)

The court’s term is dwindling fast. The schedule calls for a round of rulings on Monday, and court observers believe the justices may issue decisions on Wednesday and Thursday as well. There has been speculation of a July 1 session, though Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. is scheduled to teach a class on the history of the Supreme Court in Prague on July 2.

There will be other issues in Washington this week. The Senate is set to take a final vote on an immigration overhaul, perhaps on Thursday. (If the court overturns the federal Defense Against Marriage Act first, lawmakers may not need to seek immigration protections for gay partners of immigrants, advocates said.)

But most of the intellectual guesswork will be about the justices and their rulings.

There are ways, if you know them, to offer educated guesses about the timing and authorship (if not the substance) of the court’s coming decisions. The tricks have become de rigueur among the Washington social set, whose members swap Supreme Court theories at cocktail parties the way Angelenos swap movie industry gossip in Hollywood.

“Everybody around this time starts to try to predict who has the decision and what it’s going to say,” said Irving L. Gornstein, the executive director of the Supreme Court Institute at Georgetown University. Gornstein calls himself a “participant” in the court-guessing parlor games. This year, he said, is the worst he can remember.

“Here you have four huge cases, which is really extraordinary for a Supreme Court term,” Gornstein said. “I can’t remember when you’ve had this many cases at the end of a term.”

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