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Is it Ethical to Hire a Line Stander for a Supreme Court Hearing?

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

If you read this blog regularly, you've probably gathered that we love court hearings. It may be nerdy, but we think they're really interesting.

Real-life courtrooms may not be anything like the legal dramas on TV, but they still provide the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and the hurdles of civil procedure. For some Supreme Court observers, however, real agony occurs on the sun-drenched steps of First Street: There's limited space in the courtroom for a Supreme Court hearing, and many won't make it inside.

So what's a court-watcher to do?

Within the wee confines of the Supreme Courtroom, there is designated seating for the justices, their law clerks, the marshal, the marshal's aides, attorneys, the justices' special guests, and the media. That leaves very little room for the average observer.

Before a hearing begins, two lines form on the plaza. For those who only want a quick peek at Court, there's a three-minute line. It's exactly what it sounds like; observers from the three-minute line can go into a hearing for three minutes. There's a separate line for those who want to take in the whole hearing. And that's the harder line to navigate.

Last year, we suggested hiring a line stander if you don't want to camp on the Supreme Court steps for one of the limited number of full-hearing seats. We still stand by that advice, but a recent question to The New York Times' Ethicist column raises the question of whether it's ethical to accept a spot in line if you didn't earn it.

The question posed to the Ethicist involved a woman who was returning a device to her cable company. She took a number to wait for assistance. Then, the universe smiled upon her. The cable customer explained:

A woman turned around and told me she could no longer stay. She offered me her ticket, five numbers away from being called. At first I said no -- it wouldn't be fair to everyone else who was waiting -- but she insisted. I took her ticket, returned my cable box and walked out of the store while everyone else kept waiting.

The Ethicist responded that this woman had done two unethical things: First, she cut in the line. Second, she took advantage of a system that was consciously created to make her life easier.

For the sake of argument, let's assume that the Ethicist is correct: Does this present an ethical dilemma for would-be users of line standing services? We don't think so.

When you swap places with your line stander before a Supreme Court hearing, you're not taking advantage of dumb luck. Instead, you're receiving the benefit of a service that you planned and paid for. (And you're providing employment, albeit temporary, for a willing worker.)

Perhaps the Ethicist will clarify whether it's right for someone with greater financial resources to hire a line stander while those with less money have to wait in line all night. Until then, we think line standers are fine.

And if the Supreme Court decides to hear a DOMA or Prop 8 appeal this year, you're probably going to need one.

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