As soon as I returned from visiting the Supreme Court, people wanted to know what happened there. The answer I tended to give was, “Not much,” but that was not entirely true. A great deal happened that day, but for an ag journalist more comfortable in the fields and pastures of rural America, unschooled in legalisms, unraveling it all tested the old cerebrum.
The occasion of the visit was to hear the oral argument for Monsanto Company et al. v. Geertson Seed Farms et al., the “GMO alfalfa case,” on April 27. For a farm magazine writer, it was a singular experience. It was a bit of a stretch to go more or less straight from walking among the cows and horses here by the house to watching the lawyers prance before the justices in that historic building across from the U.S. Capitol.
First, in order to even get into the Supreme Court building with press credentials, I had to ask the editors of this magazine to submit documentation that I am, indeed, a journalist. After making it to the hallowed spot, I entered through a side door with a couple of dozen other members of the North American Agricultural Journalists group that put together this operation. There, we passed through security similar to that in an airport.
I’d already been warned not to bring along my ever-present camera. Of course, I had a notebook and a supply of pens with me. The guards examined these before waving me on down the hall to the corner where members of the press regularly covering the court hang out. I stood there and eyed the tiny cubbyholes these fellow scribes use, at least some of the time. Then I was shuffled through an information officer’s room, where I signed in, was given a couple of printed pieces of paper and a badge of sorts that looked like it would make a nice little souvenir.
Next, I proceeded to stand around, along with the others of my trade, waiting for something to happen. Eventually, a bubbly young woman appeared, ready to lead us onward. She had instructions for us, of course.
Once in the chamber, we were to be absolutely silent. We could not get up and walk around. We were to remain seated throughout the one-hour argument. We could not chew gum. We had already been instructed to arrive appropriately attired. I was in coat and tie. My collar was clean, my shoes were shined. I was ready.
The young woman led us onward, up some lengthy stairs, and through yet another security checkpoint, where guards again frowned at my notebook and pens. I was asked to wait until other press corps members cleared security. I noted that women colleagues going through security had to dump chewing gum, Life Savers and other things that could be potential noisemakers from their purses.
While standing there, I observed a lot of regular, nonjournalist-type people going through another security entrance. A Supreme Court hearing seems to be a tourist attraction, though everyone coming through is dressed with decorum, leaving shorts, sandals and miniskirts back in the hotel room. Sunglasses, books, magazines, hats, briefcases, cameras and cell phones were prohibited. Small children were officially discouraged from attendance. This solemn crowd looked like they were going to a church convention, momentarily delayed by a security checkpoint.
Upstairs in the courtroom, my badge got taken away when I entered the press area. Goodbye, souvenir. I discovered that media members are restricted to an alcove of sorts to one side of the room. Other press corps folks stepped up and got the prime seats near the front, leaving the rest of us with partial views of the proceedings. My tiny wooden chair seemed ancient enough to date to the days of John Marshall, chief justice from 1801 to 1835. The building, however, opened in 1935, so that is unlikely.
Looking around at my fellow members of the press, I saw a woman who works for National Public Radio, a New York Times reporter, and others who appeared to know a lot more about what’s going on there than I do. I wonder if they were that interested in Monsanto v. Geertson et al., or if they show up whenever there is an oral argument. A couple of police officers wearing suits sat to the side of the press area, watching us. When a journalist rose to find another seat, one of the policemen sprang into action and sat the fellow back down.
After the justices entered the room, all the attorneys were introduced to them. In this case, Monsanto, Geertson, et al., and USDA-APHIS had at least a dozen lawyers apiece. It was apparent that lots of lawyers are making money off this case.
Once the argument began, the head lawyer for each group had his turn. The Supreme Court justices frequently interrupted the lawyers’ spiels with questions or statements. This surprised me. I was not expecting a dialogue between the justices and the lawyers. A lawyer would just get started going good, then a justice would hop in with a comment, which would spur another justice to comment, and on it went.
The impression I got was that the justices did not think this case belonged in the nation’s highest court. They seemed to feel it could have been resolved by USDA-APHIS or worked out in a lower court. A couple of the justices also had a difficult time working out just who would be irreparably harmed by Monsanto’s biotech alfalfa introduction. Each side, all three of them, spoke their allotted time. Then the justices rose and left the room, and it was over.
The end seemed anticlimactic. The justices quickly retreated to wherever they go at such a time, and the rest of us left the building. Out front, in the bright spring sunshine, some press members hurried to a media availability offered by both Monsanto and Geertson et al. I stood there and looked at the two big statues in front of the building carved by James Earle Fraser and placed here soon after the building opened. Fraser, from Winona, Minn., may be best known for designing the “Buffalo nickel,” first minted in 1913.
These statues are impressive, far more eye-catching than any five-cent coin. Both are seated figures. One, a man, is titled “Authority of Law,” looking kind of tough and austere. The other, a female figure, has a book under her left arm and a blindfolded justice in her right hand. She is titled “Contemplation of Justice.”
I contemplated the surroundings there for a while, content to pause for a few moments, noting that most people on the sidewalk seemed in a hurry. Many looked as though they were on important business, and maybe they were. Up on the street corner, a man in an expensive-looking suit and solid bright red tie appeared to be giving a speech to a small group of onlookers. Meanwhile, the Monsanto Company v. Geertson et al. folks had disappeared into the crowd. Who won and lost on this day at the Supreme Court? I don’t have a clue.