I’ve spent the holiday break in the sun-drenched state of Arizona every year for the last ten years. It’s warmer than home, I have family and old friends down here, I got married here, and I know where to find an awesome bagel. Yes, lots of reasons to be psyched about spending a week here every December. But there’s another not-so-secret reason I always look forward to returning to the Grand Canyon state – it’s for the a slim chance that I might run into the elusive Supreme Court Justice who calls this state home, Sandra Day O’Connor.
I’m not often subtle about my quest and every year I’m teased by friends and family for this wish to run into SDO’C. They can always count on my suggestions for dinner at restaurants in Paradise Valley near where I hear she frequents. Anytime I’m in town there’s always a bartender, waitress, or family friend telling me (bragging?) how Justice O’Connor was just dining yesterday, or last weekend, or earlier that day nearby. You mean I just missed her?! Again?! In my mind, we run into each other and the casual banter flows from there. More likely I come off crazy, aggressive, and inappropriate.
Why is it so hard to catch a sighting of a Supreme Court justice? They eat too. They have family in town they need to entertain, or take to Starbucks, or grocery shop at AJ’s, fine purveyors of overpriced food. How have we not already had at least one happenstance run-in over a decade? Come to think of it, how in all the years I’ve travelled to D.C. to cover the Court and justices, have I not run into one outside the Court?
There’s an obvious answer to that final question. Secrecy and privacy are fixed conditions of all SCOTUS Justices. Staying off the public radar, unless they have a book to sell, is part of the job. There is as much obstinance and control over the activities of the justices outside the Court as there is inside. Richard Wolf wrote an article for USA Today about Supreme Court Justices getting the same rubberneck reactions typical of folks who’ve just spotted a rock star on the street. The “no-cameras” rule follows most from the Court into auditoriums where justices like Scalia and Roberts also control the topics of discussion and the Q&A. Tickets to see them speak at universities, law schools, and organizations like the Smithsonian or National Constitution Center sell out in hours and for a hefty price. In most cases you have to be a student or member to attend. A website called SCOTUS Map tracks future appearances of justices, however most appearances are available for a select few.
Clearly my odds of seeing Justice Kagan at a Starbucks in Dupont Circle or running into SDO’C at a restaurant in Phoenix are better than the alternatives. I’ll likely never get my run-in and even less likely is what I hope follows after we’re seated at tables next to each other – a gab session about the current court, the future of same-sex marriage cases, and who the next justice to retire will be. Never gonna happen, I know. But I can dream.