Watching the nine justices of the United States Supreme Court emerge from the back and take their seats on the bench can leave one in awe.
It is a sight that not everyone gets to see — by design. The highest court in the land, which heard its first case in 1791, has never allowed cameras in the court.
Even photos are rare. No one — from the parties, to observers, to the media — are allowed to carry in any type of device. That means no cameras, no recording devices of any type, and certainly no smart phones.
GV Wire had the opportunity to observe a case last week. Although Murray v. UBS Securities, LLC may not be the most important case the court hears, watching the proceedings live gave a unique and rare perspective.
Wonderful Visuals, Poor Audio
The courtroom seats approximately 300 people, including the parties involved, media and the public. Anyone can observe the cases during argument days. The line around the court started hours before the first case at 10 a.m.
The first four rows are reserved for the parties involved and other attorneys. The remaining seating is available for the public. Sometimes, the public are rotated in and out to increase the number of people who can watch.
The media also has designated rows on the side, with a convenient desktop area to take notes. Media are only allowed to bring in a pen and paper; and there is a dress code (suit coat and tie for men; business attire for women).
On the walls high up on each of the four sides are bas relief art pieces depicting various scenes. They seem to convey themes of “justice,” including a man holding a snake, another man holding a Hebrew scroll, and a knight with a sword.
The ceiling has ornate flower designs on red and blue backgrounds. The front and back of the court has four floor-to-ceiling marble columns, with eight on the sides.
The court also has floor-to-ceiling red drapes on each side, with gold fringe.
The justices sit in the front of the room, with Chief Justice John Roberts in the center. From the center out, justices are seated by seniority. To Roberts right is Justice Clarence Thomas; Samuel Alito to his left. At the ends are Amy Coney Barrett and Ketanji Brown Jackson.
There is also seating at the side of the bench for the Clerk of the Court and the Marshal of the Court.
Desks for the attorneys arguing the case are in the front of the room. Analogue wall clocks hang at the front and back of the rooms.
The only audio comes from two speakers set up in front of the bench. It can be difficult to hear at times. All the parties have a microphone. A cleaner version of the audio is later released through the Court website.
‘May it Please the Court’
The court session started promptly at 10 a.m. (everyone was requested to be seated a half-hour in advance). The clerk opened the day with the familiar phrase “oyez, oyez, oyez” — the traditional open calling court into session.
Before starting the Murray matter, Roberts swore in a series of attorneys, allowing them to be admitted to argue in front of the Supreme Court. After five minutes, Roberts called Murray v. UBS Securities, LLC.
Easha Ananda, a Stanford law professor and co-director of the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, delivered the arguments on behalf of Murray.
“May it please the court,” she started, with only a two-minute opening argument. The remainder of approximate 45 minutes — shared with Anthony Yang, Solicitor General of the U.S. Dept. of Justice — was going back in forth with the justices.
This was Anand’s first time arguing in front of the Supreme Court. Attorney Bob Herbst, who won at the trial level, reached out to Anand’s Stanford colleagues to get involved.
“I stepped in during the reply brief to the petition for certiorari and then helped with the merits briefing. Bob and my client, Trevor Murray, entrusted me with the appeal, for which I’ll be forever grateful,” Anand told GV Wire.
Sometimes, Roberts would call on the justices to ask and answer questions. Other times, the justices would just jump in and offer questions of law, several “what if” scenarios, and even moments of frivolity.
A comment from Brett Kavanaugh seemed mundane, but still elicited laughter from the court. The court transcript noted four instances of “laughter.”
Eugene Scalia, a Washington-based attorney, representing UBS Securities, started his argument. If the name is familiar, it should be. Scalia is the son of late Justice Antonin Scalia.
This was also his first case argued at the Supreme Court.
“I’m grateful to have been given the privilege of arguing this important employment case, and of appearing before the Court that meant so much to my father,” Scalia said.[Note: both Anand’s and Scalia’s comments came after this story first published.]
Murray v. UBS Among 80 Cases a Year
The United States Supreme Court says up to 8,000 cases are presented for an ultimate hearing, but few are granted. The Court hears about 80 cases a term. Some make front page news with major ramifications, such as abortion or gun rights.
Others, such as Murray v. UBS Securities, LLC are more mundane. Argued on Oct. 10, the court must decide how the Sarbanes-Oxley Act defines who is responsible for proving an employee was fired for being a whistleblower.
The technical question the court faces, from the SCOTUS website, is “Under the burden-shifting framework that governs Sarbanes-Oxley cases, must a whistleblower prove his employer acted with a ‘retaliatory intent’ as part of his case in chief, or is the lack of ‘retaliatory intent’ part of the affirmative defense on which the employer bears the burden of proof?”
According to court documents, Murray was a New York analyst for UBS, analyzing mortgage-backed securities.
“In the fall of 2011, applicant reported to his supervisor that he was being pressured by the leader of UBS’s trading desk to alter his analyses and to preclear those analyses with the trading desk. Shortly thereafter, despite having received a strongly positive review, he was fired,” court documents said.
Murray sued in federal court, and won his case. He was awarded nearly $1 million. UBS appealed, with the appeals court siding with the defendant on one aspect — Murray should have been required to prove UBS acted with retaliatory intent. Murray appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted the petition for certiorari — the request to be heard.
“Trevor was brave enough to do the right thing and has been paying for it for over a decade. It was such an honor to stand up and represent him in Court, but it was also very scary — the stakes were so high, and the cause so righteous, that I wanted to make sure to do his story justice,” Anand, his attorney, said.
This case may not seemingly have broad effects on the national landscape. But, it is an important enough issue for the highest court in the land to decide.
In a preview of the case, Anne Marie Lofaso with the American Bar Association wrote, “this case presents yet another opportunity for the Court to engage in statutory interpretation.”