Tickets to the two arguments that begin Tuesday are technically free. But getting them requires lining up days or hours ahead, or paying someone else to. The first people got in line Thursday, bringing the price of saving a seat to around $6,000.
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 Thursday.
The court will hear arguments Tuesday over California's ban on same-sex marriage. On Wednesday, 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. 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.
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.
Seats, meanwhile, are at a premium because there aren't that many. The courtroom seats about 500 people, but most seats are reserved for court staff, journalists and guests of the justices and lawyers arguing the case. After those people are seated, there are seats reserved for lawyers who are members of the Supreme Court bar and at least 50 seats for the public. Tickets for 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 in line said they passed the time talking and reading.
There were games of cards and at one point people watched the television show "The West Wing" on one person's computer. 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 Mountain View, Calif., arrived 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 planned demonstration outside the court Tuesday, 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, who intends to marry her partner in Massachusetts before they return to California, and said the Supreme Court's decision could be a "transformative moment" for the country.
Most of the people waiting in line are supporters of gay marriage. But opponents, too, said they intend to be at the court to watch.
Ken Klukowski, a lawyer at the Family Research Council and a professor at Liberty University School of Law in Virginia, says these cases are "not just major, not just blockbuster, but historic." Klukowski said he expects to be getting up in the middle of the night to get in the separate line for members of the Supreme Court bar.
"No one knows how early but ridiculously early," Klukowski said.
For those willing to pay to get in, several Washington services will hold a person's place in line. One company charges $36 per hour, another $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. His group held about 35 places in line for the health care arguments last year, he said. Most people, he said, are starting their line stander 24 hours before, so they'll spend $864 to attend.
Linestanding.com's owner, Mark Gross, said for many of his clients, attending is personal.
"Health care was more about public policy and the direction that the country was going politically," Gross said. "But this really affects people in a personal way,"
Kate Kendell, the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights in California, contacted Linestanding.com three weeks before the argument to secure her space. Kendell, a lawyer, said she tried to get into a Supreme Court case that involved gay rights in 1995. By the time she arrived at 3 a.m. on the day of the argument, she said, there were so many people she could only get in a line that allows people to watch three minutes of the argument. This time she isn't taking any chances.
"This is one of those experiences that I want to see firsthand. I want to see the faces of the justices. I want to hear their questions," she said.
She initially planned for her line stander to start at 4 a.m. Tuesday but has since moved the time up twice.
"All I care about is being in that courtroom and I'm pretty much willing to do whatever I have to do," Kendell said.
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