Day in Court

September 8, 2010 11:11 AM

When I returned from visiting the Supreme Court, people wanted to know what happened there. The answer I gave was “not much,” but that’s not entirely true. A great deal happened that day, but unraveling it all tested the old cerebrum.

The occasion of my visit was to hear oral argument in 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 bit of a stretch to go straight from walking among the cows and horses to watching the lawyers prance before the justices in that historic building across from the U.S. Capitol.

In order to get in, I had to submit documentation that I am indeed a journalist. I entered through a side door with other members of the North American Agricultural Journalists group. There, we passed through security similar to that in an airport.

I’d already been warned not to bring along my camera. The guards examined my notebook and pens before waving me on down the hall to an information officer’s room, where I was given a badge that looked like it would make a nice souvenir.

Eventually a young woman appeared with instructions for us. Once in the chamber, we were to be absolutely silent. We were to remain seated throughout the one-hour argument. She led us up some stairs and through another security checkpoint, where the guards again frowned at my notebook and pens.

I observed a lot of non-journalist types going through another checkpoint. A Supreme Court hearing is a tourist attraction, though everyone dresses with decorum, leaving their shorts and sandals back in the hotel. This solemn crowd looked like they were going to a church convention.

In the courtroom press area, my badge was taken away. Goodbye, souvenir. Some press corps folks got the prime seats near the front, leaving the rest of us with a partial view of the pro-ceedings. My tiny wooden chair seemed ancient enough to date back to the days of John Marshall, chief justice from 1801 to 1835. The building, however, opened in 1935, so that is unlikely.

And so it begins. The justices entered the room and all of the attorneys were introduced. Monsanto, Geertson and USDA–Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) had a dozen attorneys each.

The justices frequently interrupted the lawyers’ spiels with questions or comments. A lawyer would just get going good when a justice would jump in, which would spur another justice to comment, and on it went.

I got the impression 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 had a difficult time working out just who would be irreparably harmed by Monsanto’s biotech alfalfa introduction. All three sides spoke their allotted time, the justices rose and left the room, and it was over.

The end seemed anticlimactic. Out in the bright sunshine, I watched the Monsanto v. Geertson folks disappear into the crowd. With the national monuments as witnesses, I asked myself who won or lost. In the end, I couldn’t tell.

Editor’s Note: On June 21, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-1 to lift a nationwide ban on glyphosate-resistant alfalfa, reversing the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision that prohibited sale of the crop. Roundup Ready alfalfa will not be available for purchase until USDA–APHIS completes its final environmental impact statement and issues a record of decision for the petition.

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