The most expensive ticket to The Book of Mormon on Broadway: US$477. The face value of a great seat for this year’s Super Bowl: US$1,250. Guaranteed seats to watch the US Supreme Court hear two gay marriage cases this week: about US$6,000.
Supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage say the cases are so potentially historic that they want to be inside the courtroom to watch, no matter what the cost in time or money.
Tickets to the two arguments are technically free, but getting them requires lining up days or hours ahead, or paying someone else to. The first people got in line on Thursday last week, bringing the price of saving a seat to around US$6,000.
The court was scheduled to hear arguments yesterday over California’s ban on same-sex marriage. Today, the court will take up the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 federal law that defines marriage as between one man and one woman.
For some, putting a value on the seats is meaningless.
“It’s just not possible,” said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights organization, which began employing two people to stand in line on Thursday.
Part of the reason the seats are so coveted is the court doesn’t allow TV broadcasts of its arguments, so coming in person is the only way to see the justices at work. The court has said it will release transcripts of the hearings as well as audio recordings roughly two hours after each case ends, but advocates say that’s no substitute for being there.
Meanwhile, seats are at a premium because there are not that many. The courtroom seats about 500 people, but seats are reserved for court staff, journalists and guests of the justices and lawyers arguing the case. After those people are seated, there will be about 100 seats for lawyers who are members of the Supreme Court bar and at least 60 seats for the general public. An additional 30 seats for the public will rotate every three to five minutes. Tickets for all those seats are handed out on a first come, first served basis.
For the most controversial cases, the line to get those tickets can start to form about a day before. When the court heard three days of arguments on health care last year, the first people arrived three days early.
This time, the line started even earlier. By Monday morning there were more than three dozen people waiting, even as snow was falling. Several in the line said they were being paid, while others included college students and a substitute teacher. People said they passed the time talking, reading and playing cards.
Those waiting said they’d made friends, and they traded watching each other’s chairs and sleeping bags to go for bathroom breaks or coffee. On Monday morning, one man came around offering others donuts.
Donna Clarke, 62, of California, arrived on Sunday night and was 37th in line. The Army veteran who has been with her partner for 27 years had intended to just be part of a demonstration outside the court planned for yesterday, but she decided to join the line when she realized it might be possible to get inside.
“I think there’ll be a lot of my friends who will be very jealous,” said Clarke, adding that the Supreme Court’s decision could be a “transformative moment” for the country.
One person who won’t have to stand in line is Jean Podrasky of California. She told the Los Angeles Times that she and her lesbian partner will be in reserved seats courtesy of her cousin, Chief Justice John Roberts. In a separate open letter, Podrasky wrote that Roberts, who was nominated to be chief justice by former US president George W. Bush, is “a good man” and that she is confident he knows that a ruling “in favor of equality” is in line with the views of most Americans.
For those willing to pay to get in, several Washington services will hold a person’s place in line. One company charges US$36 per hour, another US$50. John Winslow, the operations manager of Linestanding.com, which like most other line standing services is also a courier service, said his service would be holding places for 40 to 50 clients, a number of them lawyers.