How to Score D.C.’s Hottest Ticket

Limited seating for the health-care case has Washington in a frenzy | “At least I won’t be there with the masses in the public line”

Elizabeth Dwoskin


Since February, Texas Congressman Michael Burgess has been on edge waiting to find out whether he’d score the ultimate get this year in the nation’s capital: a ticket to the oral arguments in the Supreme Court health-care reform case, which begin on March 26.

A former obstetrician-gynecologist and founder of the House of Representatives’ Health Care Caucus, Burgess, a Republican, was so opposed to the law that he co-sponsored the 2011 Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act. On March 19, less than a week before the case’s start date, he still had no idea if he’d get a seat. “For this member of Congress,” Burgess says, “it’s been a mysterious process.”

Not since Bush v. Gore has Washington seen such a scramble for access to ringside views of a Supreme Court case. The high court’s main gallery has about 400 seats for spectators — nowhere near enough for everyone pining to get in after living and breathing the health-care battle these past three years.

A court spokeswoman says the justices have a total of 27 tickets to hand out; the 11 attorneys arguing the case, six apiece. Then there are 90 spots reserved for the Supreme Court bar, a group of lawyers authorized to argue before the court, and at least 37 for media. (Dozens of other journalists will watch from a separate press gallery.) That leaves 50 seats for ordinary folk — and more than 100 that court officials are being coy about how they’ll divide up. “I could barely get my wife” a ticket, says Michael Carvin, the attorney arguing against the law for the National Federation of Independent Business.

Henry Aaron, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, counts himself among the lucky few. He wrote to court clerks for three months to no avail. Then “a light bulb went off,” Aaron says. He recalled that a colleague is married to one of the justice’s cousins. Bingo: Aaron worked the connection, scored two seats, and sent the justice’s cousin two dozen roses as a thank-you.

Doug Kendall, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, who wrote a friend-of-the-court brief in favor of the law, hasn’t been so fortunate. He plans to arrive at 6 a.m. on March 26 and stand in the line for Supreme Court bar members. “At least I won’t be there with the masses in the public line,” Kendall says.

For those who can’t be bothered to queue up but still want to try for a seat, there’s a crop of companies with employees willing to wait in line for a fee. John Winslow, co-owner of Bethesda (Md.)-based, says he’s fielding calls from would-be attendees who want to know how to game the system: “People think there is some kind of secret little trick to make the line go away or to get first in line — like there’s some kind of back entrance.” So far it’s mostly insurance companies and trade associations signing up to pay for Winslow’s services, at $36 an hour.

Jim Smith, a lobbyist at the American Continental Group, which represents Blue Cross Blue Shield in various states, says he’ll listen to audio of the case because camping out all night is definitely out of the question. “Whether we’re there or not, what’s going to happen is going to happen,” says Smith, “and we’re already prepared to respond.”

On March 20, Burgess was rushing between House votes when his staff passed along a snippet of good news: It looked like the Supreme Court’s marshal was going to get him in. Still, the congressman didn’t want to get too excited. “You know how things work around here,” he says. “There’s always a chance that somebody could say, ‘Hey, I’ve got more seniority than this guy, so I get the ticket.’”

The bottom line Even members of Congress who want to watch the health-care case are jockeying to secure one of the Supreme Court’s 400 seats.


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