Last Thursday, my alarm rang at 5:45 AM and I rolled out of bed. I quickly washed my hair, face, teeth, and slipped on my suit. Before leaving my apartment, I made sure I had my American lapel pin and my red, white, and blue tie on. I made my way to the Supreme Court to see history be made.

When I arrived at about 6:45, there were 35 people in front of me on the “public line.” The Supreme Court allows a certain number of visitors from the public for each decision day to sit inside the Court and hear the justices read a summary of their opinions. As I sat down with a Dunkin Donuts coffee, I started chatting with those around me in line. One couple was from Europe, and wanted to see the American justice system in action. Another pair, brother and sister, had been to the Court a few times. They were hoping today was the day for the gay marriage decision. Another, a soon-to-be medical student, was so excited to see the law in action. He had spent the last few weeks, before medical school, reading case briefs and ScotusBlog to understand the remaining seven cases. All 35 of us were a testament to a democratic republic in action.

Most in line were coming to the Court to hear the marriage equality decision. I had a chance to talk with the lead plaintiff on the case, Jim Obergefell. He was remarkably gracious and humble. I thanked him for his courage. At the time, I told him I hoped he had much to celebrate in the coming days. Now, I know that he does.

At 7:30, the first fifty of us were given tickets to walk in to the Court. We made our way in, and were directed to the cafeteria. We had about an hour to eat breakfast and drink coffee. I took the chance to walk around the basement of the Court and find the portraits of my favorite justices. I wondered to myself how those justices would have viewed today’s events. And I wondered what the Court was like on similarly important days. I remember looking up at a sculpture of the Warren Court, and trying to place myself at the Court on May 17, 1954.

In the hour we were given to wait, I went to the bathroom twice because I was so nervous. At about 9 AM, we were taken through security and in to the Court. I had been two weeks earlier, but today had far more energy, though it was mostly nervous anticipation. Although everyone obediently stayed quiet and looked around at the beautiful architecture above us, there were mumblings throughout– What will the Court announce today? Who will author the opinions?

I was seated next to a gay couple who were both wheelchair-bound. One wore a “LGBTQ for Obama” shirt. Sitting beside them reminded me how the law, and the Court’s decisions in particular, so deeply impact people.

Sharply at 10 AM, Chief Justice Roberts and the remaining eight justices walked in to the Court. Off the bat, Justice Kennedy was introduced to read the opinion for the Fair Housing Act case, Inclusive Communities. The case decided whether the Fair Housing Act, a law passed in memory of Martin Luther King Jr. a week after his assassination, allowed for disparate impact liability. Mainly a statutory interpretation case, it had significant social implications for racial integration in our country. Justice Kennedy, in a narrow 5-4 majority, ruled to uphold disparate impact. His opinion, as read from the bench, showed a striking awareness of the race issues we face today. The decision was a surprise to many legal observers who thought Justice Kennedy would go the other way, but a huge victory to keep an important Civil Rights law intact.

Then, Justice Roberts casually said, “I will read the opinion in Case Number 14-114, King v. Burwell.” The crowd, all at once, got to the edge of their seat. I clasped my hands together and squeezed as hard as I could. I was mixed with emotions; excited that I had come on the day King was announced, but nervous with how Justice Roberts would rule. I had learned far more about this case then I ever imagined. In fact, King was the basis for one of my law school exams. As Justice Roberts began to read his opinion, I was struck by how well he understood the purpose and vision of the ACA.

From the beginning of his opinion, Justice Roberts clearly laid out the purpose of the ACA. He understood the structure well. The bill was, in general, a three-legged stool, which required non-discrimination for health insurance, the mandate, and subsidies. Without one leg, the whole stool would fall down. And in typical Justice Roberts fashion, his words jumped so easily from the page. Remarkably simple, sensible language that spoke to the role of subsidies, the context of the statute, the clear purpose of Congress, and the role of the Court. Roberts’ vision of statutory interpretation, and administrative law, may have a significant impact on future cases.[1] But in that moment, I was less concerned with the future. I was just elated the Court got it right.

Justice Scalia read a dissent from the bench. He, in belief that the Court had re-written the statute, argued that the ACA should be called “SCOTUSCare.” He blistered the role of the Court with his language, but his demeanor was quite respectful.

As soon as Scalia finished reading, Roberts banged the gavel, and the Court was dismissed. I walked out the front of the Court and down the steps. As soon as I stepped out, I felt like I was in a movie. I was greeted by a hundred ACA supporters chanting, “the ACA is here to stay” and “healthcare is a right.” It was surreal. I was in the middle of history. Their voice rung over the air, and they held signs noting the numbers in each state that had signed up for insurance. There was no noticeable opposition. I took a brief sigh of relief and looked out beyond the Court. With the Capitol in the background, I laid witness to the preservation of healthcare for 6.4 million people.

On Friday morning, I was nearly certain the Court would announce their decision on gay marriage on the final day of the term, Monday, so I did not go down to the Court. Instead, my co-workers and I huddled around a computer sharply at 10 AM to watch ScotusBlog for any news. Within minutes, it was clear: the Court would extend marriage equality to all Americans. The Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment protects an individuals’ right to marry regardless of sex.

We hollered, ran out of the office, and jumped in a cab. By 10:25, we were down at the Court to see the celebration. The Court police, in atypical fashion, allowed observers on to the marble plaza. Couples embraced and kissed. Others took selfies of themselves amongst the sea of people. Some chanted and sang (my favorite song was, naturally, the Star Spangled Banner). All ages and races came together to celebrate.

I had a chance to stand by Jim Obergefell as he walked out of the Court. Mr. Obergefell’s commitment to his recently deceased husband had finally been recognized. An aura of relief, justice, and righteousness flowed from him.

As I was leaving, I overheard a dad tell his son, “you are in the most important place in the world right now.” I think he was right. Last week served as a potent reminder that the Court is an important place, and often a force for good, especially when the justices adhere to the words engraved above their office: “equal justice under law.”

[1] For an article on this, see http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-06-25/the-catch-in-the-obamacare-opinion

Matthew Ryan outside the Court after the marriage decision.

Matthew Ryan outside the Court after the marriage decision.

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Matthew Ryan is from Kansas City. He studied public health and economics at Saint Louis University. Prior to law school, he worked in Hartford, CT as a Jesuit Volunteer at a legal aid clinic. He is interested in health policy.

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  • You never disappoint. Great piece.

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