It had all the trappings of a classic college road trip. In many ways it was a lot like Revenge of the Nerds. Nerds? Check. Laptops, cell phones, and Sony F-707 five mega pixel digital cameras? Check. The only difference was that our destination was not as climatically exotic as south Florida. Instead, we drove to the intellectually exotic Supreme Court of the United States.
After seven years of discovery, litigation, and appeals, the highest court in the land had granted certiorari to hear two of the most controversial civil-rights cases of our generation. Affirmative action at the University of Michigan, our college, was on trial. After years of Jesse Jackson, protests, and more Jesse Jackson, we couldn’t miss this. People started camping out on the corner of First and East Capitol four days before the hearing. We showed up two days early, a full day sooner than people started camping out for Bush v. Gore. They were slackers. We, on the other hand, were activists.
In fact, for the last four years we’ve been activists. Conservative activists. It’s not an oxymoron, just an anomaly. Every time the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action and Fight for Integration and Stop the Resegregation of Higher Education By Any Means Necessary (and Stop the War, and Impeach Bush, and Kill Whitey), a group of sectarian Communists, invited 300 Detroit high-school kids to a rally in Ann Arbor, we followed them. We made signs to protest the protest. We put ourselves out there. So, naturally, when we heard they were going to the Supreme Court hearings, we knew we had to do more than just show up: we had to one-up them by snatching four of the coveted 50 seats available to the general public.
When we arrived on Sunday morning, there were three people in line. A rain-soaked homeless man was holding a spot in line for someone else, a lawyer from the law firm representing the university, he told us. It turned out that he was holding the spot in line for a professional line-sitter, who in turn was holding the spot for the husband of a lawyer representing the university. The other two people in front of us were law students from Howard University.
With a little help from ponchos and tarps, which we used to quell the 40-mile-an-hour winds and driving rain, and some tasty beverages (cocoa mixed with Kahlua and brandy), we made it through.
By midnight, the freezing rain and strong gusts left the now forty or so campers looking like contestants on Howard Stern’s Homeless Jeopardy. Even the Gratzes — the family of the named plaintiff in the case against the undergraduate college — huddled with the supporters of affirmative action beneath the weathered ponchos and tarps. Misery brought us together, at least for the moment.
For 24 hours we avoided the contentious issue staring us in the face. But it wouldn’t last; it couldn’t last. As more people joined the end of the line, the list grew to well beyond 50. Tension rose, and still the line grew longer. With twelve hours to go before the hearing, the press descended on our camp hungry for sound bites. ABC, evidently, was starving. Unsatisfied with the idle conversation, the reporter asked us to “talk about affirmative action,” unwittingly happening upon a clever high-school conservative, who played devil’s advocate, setting us up with cupcake questions and responding with logically inconsistent answers.
As the night wore on and the wind became too much for the reporters, conversation lulled. Everything was dark except for a room on the second floor of the Supreme Court. The light in that room had been on for two consecutive days. It must have been one of Ginsburg’s clerks, working to get ahead on her dissent.
Supreme Court marshals woke everyone up at 5 A.M. and made a list. Although the hearing didn’t start until 10, the streets had to be cleared in an hour. The marshals have plenary power on the streets, similar to what the justices have inside the courtroom. The marshals on the street were equally arbitrary.
An hour later, we lined up single-file according to our number on the list. We were numbers four through seven on a list now well over 100, but we wouldn’t feel safe until we were in the courtroom. The longer we waited, the more concerned we became that some smart aleck would realize all the minorities have been historically discriminated against and thus they were each entitled to move up 20 places in the line.
Finally, once the marshals collected a sufficient mass of campers, they escorted us into the courtroom to watch oral arguments. Two hours and a press conference later, and we were on our way home. In the end, it was a most satisfying road trip.
As for the decision, we have to wait until June. But regardless of which side the majority comes down on, there no doubt will be a rally and demonstration in support of affirmative action. And as for us, you know where we’ll be: putting the “act” in conservative activism.
— D. C. Lee, James Justin Wilson, Ruben Duran, and Jon Book are students at the University of Michigan and editors of the Michigan Review.