FIRST ONE @ ONE FIRST

Vox Populi: October Rain

Posted in Case Reports, Vox Populi by Mike Sacks on October 5, 2010

I opened my front door this dark morning to a chilly gust of autumn air spitting rain in my face.  “Don’t make a habit of this, Justice Kagan,” I thought to myself.

Mother Nature has not seemed to take kindly to Elena Kagan’s milestones.  On the day of her confirmation vote, a ferocious thunderstorm crashed through Capitol Hill in the time the Senate took to open and close its voting.  Now, on the heels of Washington’s first glorious fall weekend, rainclouds insist on overseeing the entirety of Kagan’s debut week on the bench.

But Mother Nature is not the newest justice’s final arbiter.  As the dreary day broke on One First Street this morning, scores of umbrellas shielded men and women waiting for their opportunity to give Justice Kagan a more hospitable welcome than the elements afforded.

Of all those who showed up to witness the new justice’s historic first day of court, however, one man stood out.

“You’ve got to meet Graham,” said Ryan Malphurs, who arrived shortly before 4am.  A newly-minted Ph.D. in Communications, Malphurs has attended around 60 oral arguments since 2006, traveling from Texas each time, to conduct research for his dissertation on the justices’ power of persuasion at oral argument.  Back again to continue his work as he expands his dissertation into a book, Malphurs introduces his friend.

Graham Blackman-Harris, 44, is the ultimate Court-watcher.  Hailing from Jersey City, NJ, he made his first trip to the Court in 1990.

“I wanted to see Thurgood Marshall on the bench before he retired,” says Blackman-Harris of his first in-person encounter with the Court.  “He looked like a giant.”

Since then, he’s made all but two First Mondays in October.

Forget doctoral students, forget stunt-bloggers, forget lawyers: Blackman-Harris truly embodies the civic passion so evident among the Court’s most ardent followers.  A FedEx Operations Manager and self-professed C-SPAN junkie, he cites 1998’s Clinton v. City of New York as his favorite case because he had followed its issue—the constitutionality of the line-item veto—since the bill’s birth in the Senate.

“I’ve read the Constitution a bajillion times,” he says with a laugh.  “I love it.  Even the three-fifths part”—referring to the infamous clause writing slavery into the founding document—“because the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments corrected it.”

After his first trip to the Court, Blackman-Harris began his First Monday tradition in 1991 with the intention of seeing Justice Clarence Thomas’s debut.  The Anita Hill allegations, however, served to delay the Senate’s confirmation of Thomas until mid-October.  He has been luckier in later years, witnessing Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Chief Justice Roberts all make their first appearances.

Still, Justice Thomas occupies a large swath of Blackman-Harris’s highlight reel.

A year after Thomas joined the Court, the justice continued to face antagonism in the press.  Blackman-Harris, who, like Thomas, grew up quite close to his grandfather, wrote the justice a letter telling him to “keep his chin up.”

Thomas wrote back with a personal thank you note.  Since then, Blackman-Harris has written every other justice but never received anything more than a form letter in return.

“I don’t believe in a lot of the things Justice Thomas believes in,” says Blackman-Harris, “but I didn’t think it was fair” for the justice to get attacked for his conservative jurisprudence.  “The Constitution, that sweet document, entitles [Thomas] to his beliefs.”

And Blackman-Harris can count himself among the few lucky members of the public to have seen with his own eyes one of the few moments that Justice Thomas has expressed his beliefs in the form of a question during oral argument.

“The whole courtroom just went quiet,” he remembers.  That’s saying something for a place where library-silence is always maintained.

Indeed, he wishes that all Americans could witness moments like that.  To back up his belief, he has written additional rounds of letters to the justices urging them to televise their proceedings.

But it should be apparent by now that for Blackman-Harris, C-SPAN’s “America and the Courts” is simply not enough.  This year, he showed up on a crutch, hobbled by hip problems.  “I was going to crawl if I had to,” he says.

His commitment to his visits for First Mondays and landmark arguments runs deeper than mere interest.  For this man from Jersey, it’s personal.  “This is my Court!” he exclaims as we enter the building.

Graham Blackman-Harris, in his deep devotion to the American idea, proves how inconsequential everyday setbacks like injury or inclement weather really are to the success of the American spirit.  From the Founders scrapping the Articles of Confederation for the Constitution during a stiflingly hot Philadelphia summer to our first African-American President’s inauguration on a frostbitten Washington winter morning, we and our leaders push forward against the elements into each new chapter in our country’s history.

And judging by Justice Kagan’s performance today—poised, comfortable, and perfectly fluid in a bankruptcy case, no less—she and her audience need not regard a trifling turn in the weather as a bad omen for her decades of service to come.

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4 Responses

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  1. Donna said, on October 5, 2010 at 9:33 am

    GBH sounds like a real patriot–thanks for the inspiring description! Looking forward to hearing more about the new justice and how you see her fitting in.

  2. Joe said, on October 5, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    As to Kagan — wow! A law professor handles high status Q&A well. So impressive!

    Not. The person you profiled is. Thanks for that.

  3. Jake said, on October 6, 2010 at 9:41 am

    Met Graham yesterday, it was probably the highlight of my court-watching day. It made me think about some of the people who used to skip/not take seriously my Con Law class, and what a shame it was that they lacked the enthusiasm that a guy like Graham had.

  4. [...] I met Ryan on the Supreme Court sidewalk before the first day of the term, where he gave me a preview of this study as we paced in front of the Court trying to keep warm.  He stayed in line for the rest of that first week and later, in a post for F1@1F, reflected on his night with the crowd for Snyder v. Phelps. [...]


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