5 lessons I learned covering same-sex marriage at the Supreme Court

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5 lessons I learned covering same-sex marriage at the Supreme Court

The start of this week was a whirlwind of press conferences, photo opportunities and historic court arguments for me as I covered the Supreme Court in action for the first time.

I’ve been a full-time reporter since 1999, and while my career has led me to Instanbul and Tokyo and Paris and Belize, I’d never been to our nation’s Capitol, much less granted a seat for one of the most historic high court arguments of the generation. I was there Tuesday, April 28, as the justices listened to arguments on both sides of the historic Obergefell v. Hodges same-sex marriage case.

Here are five lessons I’m taking home from the experience:

• Media have the worst seats in the house. I’d been warned that I’d likely have a tough time seeing the justices, but it turned out, that was an understatement. Most reporters lucky enough to land spots inside Supreme Court arguments are seated behind no fewer than three impressive obstructions: gorgeous marble columns adorning the 1935-built structure; theatrical ceiling-to-floor curtains that, while tied back, still partially block the view; and an ornate golden divider that ensures that if you were somehow fortunate enough to avoid the first two obstructions, your view still hinges on your ability to peer through decorative cutouts.

You’re also not allowed to move much, and standing to stretch is also a no-no. Of course, those rules flew out the window, albeit briefly, when a protester disrupted the hearing.

• Hearing is pretty tricky, too. While some of the justices’ voices were blessedly clear, you ran the risk of misidentifying them because you couldn’t see who was speaking. (I’d listened to the Windsor case in the morning in hopes of familiarizing myself with their voices, but there were too many similarities for me to become an expert in short order.) Most of us reporters looked around like confused toddlers until someone with more behind-the-curtains experience clued us in on the likely talker.

Oh, and fun fact: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has the easiest voice to recognize, but she’s arguably the hardest to understand. She projects as though she’s talking into a bolt of wool. If it weren’t for the quick turnaround on the audio and transcripts uploaded online, most of us would have easily messed up half of the quotes.

Some protesting is heartfelt, but some seems more like theater. On Monday, the demonstrations were largely civil. Sure, some gay-rights activists tried to drown out the bullhorns of traditional marriage advocates by singing, “All we are saying, is give love a chance.” And, yes, those in support of Biblical marriage did condemn gays and lesbians to hell. But whatever tension arose then was nothing compared to the theatrics of Tuesday, which seemed to bring out those who were more interested in getting on TV than they were in supporting a cause.

The Enquirer opted not to show all of the protesters’ signs because the language on some got pretty raw. It would be easy to zero in on those protesters for the shock value, but it wouldn’t have been a true representation of those who started showing up as early as Friday for the Tuesday hearing. In short, the extremists on either side didn’t seem to be there for the cause as much as they were for the photo op.

• Supreme Court security guards don’t seem keen on breastfeeding in public. One of the Cincinnati mothers in the Henry v. Hodges case sat quietly on the steps Monday evening, discreetly breastfeeding her 10-month-old daughter. A security guard who spotted her snapped, “You are not doing that here.” Surprised, the woman stopped and pulled out a pouch of baby food instead.

On the surface, it might seem a no-brainer to refrain from breastfeeding outside the nation’s highest court, but the scene around her wasn’t exactly one of heightened decorum: Nearby, protesters supported traditional marriage by yelling through a bullhorn about “natural law” and condemning gays and lesbians to hell. They also preached about the importance of doing what’s best for children.

After I returned home, I learned that the guard who booted the mom wasn’t obeying the law, which allows women to breastfeed on federal property. Had I known then what I know now, I would have happily gotten a little uppity with him in pointing out his error.

It was really, really cool. Our coverage of the historic case wasn’t the best-read thing I’ve ever written. In fact, it was drowned out Monday by a colleague’s story of an Over-the-Rhine restaurant naming a hot dog special after Bruce Jenner, who recently announced that he is a transgender woman.

But, hey, we live in a world where kitten videos reign supreme. That doesn’t diminish the fact that I was on the Supreme Court steps, and inside its hallowed halls, as a witness to history. I don’t know for certain what June’s expected ruling will be, but I do know this much: I was there, I saw more than most, I heard more than many, and I learned a few things along the way.

All in all, not a bad way to spend the week.

(To read my news stories of the coverage, go here: http://tinyurl.com/ssm-coverage)

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