Thursday, January 10, 2013

28 Hours in D.C.

What a trip! I think this was the tightest turnaround I’ve ever had for a visit to Washington D.C.  And I swear, I was feeling so stressed the day before I left that if I’d managed to buy “trip insurance” when I booked my flights, I might have just canceled.

But I hadn’t, so I didn’t, and there I was, aloft on Tuesday morning. And it was absolutely glorious!

What officially drew me there this time was the opportunity to watch an oral argument at the United States Supreme Court. The case on the docket was Missouri vs. McNeely, and it centered on the question of whether police should have to get a warrant before forcing a blood draw for evidence in a drunk driving case.  A little more than eight years earlier, I’d argued exactly the same issue before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and the Wisconsin court ruled that the fact that alcohol is constantly disappearing from the driver’s bloodstream during the investigation and arrest creates an exception to the general requirement for a warrant. The Missouri Supreme Court reached the exact opposite conclusion last year, and so SCOTUS took up the case to finally settle the issue for the entire country. I was just there to claim a front seat at the table of history while the pivotal arguments were going on. When else would I ever have anything like a reason to show up in that courtroom?

(Okay here I will confess that I actually had been inside the courtroom itself once before, but not for actual court. My dearly departed godmother had taken me along several years ago as her traveling companion to watch a historical case reenactment presided over by her conservative jurist hero, Antonin Scalia.
I don't remember what case was argued, but there were drinks and hors d'ouevres afterward, and I got photos of both my aunt and myself with Justice Scalia. Hers turned out to be the worst picture she'd ever taken. Mine, with me all dolled up in a lace blouse and blue-rimmed glasses on the other hand, was charming, and made it look like I was on a blind date with Danny DeVito.)

But the fun, and the prep, all started two days before, when I got home from work and finally got down to packing. This will sound incredibly politically incorrect…but really, when it comes to packing for a trip, men have it so much easier. Flat shoes, shaving kit, a change of clothes. Into my little carry-on bag for a single overnight stay, on the other hand, went…a pair of spike heels, a little black dress and a blazer to wear to court; another knit dress, a long sweater and a pair of high-heeled boots to wear to dinner with my college roommate who works in D.C.; jewelry; makeup; hairspray and Static Guard; curling iron; cashmere cardigan for under the blazer in case the weather was colder than the sixty degree forecast; a long raincoat; and three books for reading on the plane.

After checking the D.C. weather report, I nervously threw caution to the wind and left the calf-length down coat, mukluk boots and winter gloves behind. This was no small point. Just before Christmas, a blizzard had left me without power at my house for forty hours, and dumped fifteen inches of snow in the front yard.

I needn’t have worried. The plane touched down at one in the afternoon, and the sun was shining. There was not a snowflake in sight.

After following my friend Kathy’s excellent directions for the Washington Metro and emerging from the subway only a block and a half from my hotel, I was awestruck to notice purple pansies in profusion lining the sidewalk as I walked by. I snapped pictures like the tourist that I was. Then, as I turned the corner, I saw that the pansies were part of the luscious landscaping at my new digs for the night, the St. Regis Hotel. I silently gave heartfelt thanks to the folks at and their “book your flight + hotel and save!” feature. 

Given that one of the last motel rooms I stayed in was at a Red Roof Inn my son Michael and I found in the dead of night in rural Pennsylvania during our road trip to Philadelphia a few months earlier (and truly a great value for the money!), the qualities of “posh” and “sumptuous” in this absolutely gorgeous hotel only two blocks from the White House were total balm to my senses.

Once I was settled in, I still had hours to go before meeting Kathy for dinner, so I scored a map of D.C. from the front desk and went out for a walk.

The area around the White House was alive with the construction of temporary bleachers and structural accommodations for the upcoming inauguration. I spied a young man taking a picture of the White House with his phone and offered my usual friendly swap—I’ll get a photo of you with your camera if you’ll do the same for me! His accent placed him somewhere from Down Under—Australia or New Zealand I guessed though I didn’t ask—and a few minutes later we both walked away with photographic proof that each of us had actually been in Washington.

I meandered farther toward the Washington Monument, but finally ran out of steam before I got there and just sat on the base of the First Division Monument for a little while, soaking in the warm sunshine and reveling in the fact that while the trees were leafless, the grass was still mostly green and it felt like late spring to me, not the dead of winter I’d left behind. And I snapped a photo for two young men admiring the monument commemorating those who died while serving in the First Infantry Division of the U.S. Army.

I stopped at the Renwick Gallery on the way back, and took in a current exhibition of crafts by young artists, as well as the portrait gallery on the upper floor. As I finally walked back to the hotel, I couldn’t help but notice that the sidewalks in these corridors of power seemed overwhelmingly occupied by guys in dark suits and well-tailored overcoats, striding purposefully toward…what, I had no idea. Whatever their agendas, they seemed to involve a lot of texting. Texting while walking, texting while waiting for the light to change at street corners, texting while riding subway escalators.

Kathy and I finally met for dinner at a contemporary Italian restaurant near the hotel, Siroc.  I had misjudged the side of the broad boulevard that it was on, and had to cut across a swath of park to get there. As I passed by a man sleeping, and—by all evidence—apparently living temporarily on a park bench, I got a crash reminder in just how far the drastic divide between the fortunate and unfortunate can be in this world, and how starkly the two worlds can exist just a few feet apart from each other in a town like this. I wondered whether that thought occurred to many of those guys in the pin-striped suits that I’d seen earlier, covering the pavement with such ambition and animation. Maybe they just didn’t walk through that park all that often.

Over delectable dinners, Kathy and I caught up on about four years of life and family and work, and then it was finally time for me to call it a night. It was going to be a long and thrilling day ahead! The next morning I was up long before the sun was even a low gleam on the horizon.  Breakfast was a chunk of cold salmon and caramelized onions left over from dinner the night before, in between showering and packing. After checking out and parking my suitcase at the hotel, I cabbed it over to the Supreme Court building an hour before it opened to the public. I wasn’t taking any chances at not getting in!

Because of another case a few years ago in which I’d filed a “petition for certiorari” with the high court, I was actually a member of the Supreme Court Bar and had learned in planning the trip that I was entitled to special seating in the “bar member section.” Exactly what that entailed, I had no idea, but when I got there I found I was just the second person in the “bar members” line and so getting in would be no problem. I spent the next hour chatting with a couple of defense lawyers who were also connected somehow with the case I was there to watch. Then, after our identities were at last confirmed against the roster of bar members, we were escorted first to a coat check and locker room, and then to the courtroom itself. All cell phones, cameras, coats and assorted bags had to be left behind.

Oh, what I would have given to be able to have a camera in my hand for a few minutes!  We were seated nearly an hour before court started, and as the stately and beautiful room started to fill with spectators and participants and staff and security guards, the energy and anxiety were palpable. There were lawyers, old and young, who were going to be formally admitted to the Supreme Court Bar before the cases were called, and their proud sponsors who would each personally ask the court to do so.  The participants in the morning’s cases readied themselves at their seats at the front of the courtroom, doing last-minute cramming as if for law school exams. There was glad-handing, and introductions, and jostling around, and wishes of “good luck” from various quarters. And then, finally, some of the individual justices’ clerks emerged from behind the tall scarlet drapes with coffee cups to be placed at the bench, and then all the justices emerged to take their seats. New bar members were sworn in, and then what is literally the Super Bowl of law in the U.S. began.

As the arguments started…and even before…I realized that I literally had ended up with the best seat in the house!! Somehow, fortune had smiled on me and I was seated in the front row of the bar member section, at the very edge of the center aisle, directly facing Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice John Roberts. Going back to the Super Bowl analogy, a seat like that would be on the fifty yard line, just behind the coach and players. Wow. And as a few of my girlfriends from law school had predicted, and being that close to the action, I nearly had to sit on my hands to keep from raising one and offering, “Yes, I know the answer to that question!”

It will be months before a decision is reached in the case, changing the way one half or the other of the country processes drunk driving arrests. After the hour of argument in the McNeely case was finished, there was a mass exodus from the room as the players and spectators for the second case of the morning filed in. I managed to get a photo on the steps of the courthouse with the Missouri prosecutor who had convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the issue, and then took inventory of the rest of the day.

My plane would lift off at five in the afternoon, but I still had enough time to walk over to the U.S. Capitol building across the street and take a guided tour. And as I was checking my rain coat, an exceedingly friendly and generous Capitol guide even volunteered to get me a pass to see the chambers of the House of Representatives. (There were no representatives there that day, but it was easy, sitting high above in the visitor’s gallery, to look down at the floor and imagine 435 adults behaving like five-year-olds in a large sandbox. Sigh…)

Finally, it was time to find another Metro station and take the subway back to the hotel to claim my suitcase and swap my courtroom duds for traveling clothes. Yet another subway ride later and I was back at the airport, going through my fourth metal detector of the day. And just twenty-eight hours after I had landed in Washington, I was up in the air again, chasing the setting sun into a landscape still covered with a blanket of white.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

Wow! What a great trip you had. You made a short trip sound interesting and fun, which Washington, D.C. can definitely be! Glad you had the weather on your side!