By Christopher Mark Neilson
Forty-three of us, dressed in our finest outfits, walked in a light rain to the United States Supreme Court at 7:30 in the morning on April 26, 2004 (ok, our hotel was just a few blocks away, and it was only a drizzle of what was to become a downpour later.) “EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW” is written in stone above the columned entrance to the iconic building.
We were a group of Broward County, Florida judges, lawyers, families, guests, and members of the (Judge) Stephen R. Booher Broward County Chapter of the American Inns of Court. Our President, Judge Charles M. Greene and his Judicial Assistant Anita Werking, Florida Bar Board of Governor’s Representative Nancy Gregoire, her assistant Cheryl Larson, and Christopher Neilson had planned this event for the past year.
We had previously arranged for a wonderful complete breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs, breads, meats, juices, coffee, etc., in the beautiful United States Supreme Court Law Clerk’s dining room, which was waiting for us when we arrived, along with a printed sign welcoming our group. The Clerk of the Court, Mr. William K. Suter, came by and privately greeted us. He explained the formal admission ceremony protocol to us. One of the Justices Judicial Assistants even met with us and extended the Justices congratulations, as well as regrets, that they could not also privately meet with us that morning. We were truly treated as distinguished guests.
Eighteen of us, who were to be formally sworn in before the entire Court within the hour, were specially escorted by the Clerk to the very front of the courtroom. The rest of our group were seated in the completely full courtroom. What an ornate and thought provoking very special place, steeped in history, rich tradition, and formality. As we awaited the arrival of the Supremes’, the lawyer to my right was set to argue the second case (the Court hears two cases on argument days.) There were several beautiful white feathers on his table, actually ceremonial writing quills (like they really used to write with!), which are given to counsel who appear before the court. As we waited, I wished him well on his case. He knew I was getting sworn in, and presented me with one of his feathers as a very special souvenir of this very solemn occasion. WOW! I was extremely grateful, honored, and very touched by his kindness. How fortunate. What a wonderfully serendipitous occurrence. It reminded me of the expression “Put a feather in his cap” (i.e. “Yankee Doodle”) or, getting “A feather in your cap.”
ALL RISE! The Justices arrived simultaneously, from three separate flanks. In the center flank was Chief Justice Rehnquist, with Justice Stevens to his immediate right, and Justice O’Connor to his left. The left flank, from the left, were Justices Ginsburg, Souter, and Scalia. The right flank, from the right, were Justices Breyer, Thomas and Kennedy. Each Justice had an aide behind them who not only moved their personally designed chairs for them as the were seated, but remained right behind their chairs (for any assistance needed) throughout the session.
Judge Greene addressed The Court; “MR. CHIEF JUSTICE, and may it please The Court, I move the admission of the following Attorneys: Susan Aramony, Lee Cohen, Peggy Gehl, Bruce Green, Vene Hamilton, Julie Klahr, Richard Komando, Cynthia Imperato, Morrie Levine, Valerie Lewis, Christopher Neilson, Andrea Marcus, David Pakula, Mimi Sall, Andrew Salvage, Robert Schwartz, Johanna Shields, and Beverly Vessel, ALL OF THE STATE OF FLORIDA; I am satisfied each possesses the necessary qualifications.”
Justice Rehnquist then granted the motion, administered the oath, and admitted us as members of the Bar of the Court. This makes us eligible to sit in a reserved section of the Courtroom, as well as to use the extensive law library of the Court.
We were then permitted to stay for excellent Oral Arguments (as well as fascinating questions by the Justices) in the case of Cheryl K. Philer, Warden of California State Prison-Sacramento, Petitioner, v. Richard Herman Ford, Respondent, Case #03-221, on Writ of Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. This was a very interesting, and potentially far reaching, case dealing with dismissal of prisoners’ habeas corpus petitions, containing both unexhausted and exhausted claims; possible stays of proceedings pending exhaustion of state remedies, and, the effect of the court not informing the petitioner of the possible effect of statute of limitations.
That evening, our group celebrated at the Marrakesh, an authentic Moroccan restaurant!
During the Washington visit, we had arranged several private tours of The Capitol, the Library of Congress, The Florida House (a wonderful respite for Floridians, located right behind the Supreme Court), as well as several other venues. On our first arrival to DC on Sat., April 24, we had a pre-arranged group luncheon, in a private mezzanine room with a window view of the Capitol, at the America Restaurant at Union Station. Lunch was immediately followed by an authentic World War II amphibious “Duck” boat tour of the Capitol area and Potomac River, which picked us up right in front of Union Station. Some of us had a divine dinner on the on 11th floor Hyatt Capitol View restaurant, at a table with an incredible window view of the Capitol illuminated at night!
On Sunday, we arranged a private bus tour to the brand new National Air and Space Center at Dulles International Airport, and were delighted with this magnificent 250,000 square foot, state of the art hanger, large enough to house a Concord, Space Shuttle, the Enola Gay (the plane which basically ended World War II), as well as numerous private, commercial, and military planes and related items. On our return we were dropped us off near the Capitol to see the magnificent Bartholdi Fountain (designed by the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty.) We were going to tour the U.S. Botanical Gardens, however they were closed for spring planting. By coincidence, we had landed in the middle of the Million Woman Pro Choice March on Washington. As we made our way through the Mall, we could hear the band MOBY playing the old Buffalo Springfield song “Stop, Hey, What’s that sound?” (“Everybody look what’s going down”.) Group estimates were 1.2 million people, on both sides of the issue, who packed the mall, carrying signs, shoulder to shoulder, from the Capitol to the Washington Monument. It was just plain incredible to see so many people in one place at one time. No matter what side they were on, they had the freedom of speech to voice their opinions. It was a very powerful and moving experience to see the people of our nation in action, where “Equal Justice Under Law” allowed such freedoms.
We went to some fantastic restaurants, rode the clean, safe and efficient Metro, and went to the International Spy Museum on Tuesday before we flew home. What a trip. We had a blast!
You do not have to appear in person to be admitted to the United States Supreme Court, and most people do it by mail. However, since it is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity, you really shouldn’t miss out on it! Go for it! Who knows, you might even get a feather in your cap!
(Chris Neilson can be reached at (954) 920-4529).