Washington, D.C.

January 16, Martin Luther King Jr. Day

With thousands of others who waited hours for free tickets, I got to see Gladys Knight and the Let Freedom Ring Choir perform at the Kennedy Center. You can watch the event here. It was a joy-filled celebration of a man, a movement, and imperfect, incomplete success.

In this temple, as in the hearts of the people, for whom he saved the union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.

After the concert, I walked to the Lincoln Memorial. I read the words above his head with a comma: “the people, for whom he saved the union, …” Without the comma, it reads, “in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the union”, connoting that he saved the union only for some people. He saved the union for all people, at least a more expansive concept of people than at the outset of the union.

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January 17, Visit to the Capitol and the Library of Congress

My visit to D.C. let me see the people and institutions that might check executive power. The ten-minute pro-forma session was an example of that. It was a reminder that people trust in the power of their institutions. The Senate would not have held many of its pro-forma sessions except that they prevent the President from making recess appointments.

Next was the Library of Congress.

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I cannot live without books, but fewer will suffice…

Before I spent some time in the Reading Room, I visited Thomas Jefferson’s library. Jefferson offered to Congress his entire collection after the Library of Congress was largely destroyed in the 1814 burning of Washington. He numbered them, and arranged them by subject. It was filled with history, fiction, science, politics, religion, law, literary criticism, math… He had a Koran. Anticipating that Congress might think this collection too diverse, he wrote to them: “there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”

January 18, United States Supreme Court

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I chose to attend the oral argument of Lee v. Tam. It was a First Amendment case, it had a sympathetic plaintiff (Mr. Tam and the Slants), and the outcome will almost certainly determine the outcome for the “Redskins” trademark. A couple of people told me that I should arrive at 4am or even 3am to be guaranteed a spot in the audience. I arrived at 3:08 and was 8th in line, behind mostly line-holders who looked like they had been there overnight. By 4am, the line was past capacity.

At the front of the line, I was surrounded with people very familiar with the case: family of the attorney who would argue the case for Mr. Tam, an author of an NSFW amicus brief from the CATO institute,  somebody close to the legal team for Pro-Football, Inc…

The First Amendment protection of speech is an important check on the government. Expressive speech comes in many forms: journalism, literature, comedy, music. Today, much of this expression takes place in the commercial sphere. Sometimes, a speaker is emboldened to choose a particular message because they can trust in the protection of trademark law to secure exclusive use of that message as an indicator of their goods or services. The government has decided to withhold from a certain category of speech (speech that disparages) the special protections that trademark registration brings.

This case asks: is this kind of restriction a burden on speech, is that burden is viewpoint-based, and if so, is it nonetheless justified because of the purpose of the government’s trademark registration program?

The session started promptly at 10am with four minutes spent admitting attorneys from around the country to the Supreme Court Bar. Then, from Chief Justice Roberts: “Justice Sotomayor has our opinion this morning…” — I had already seen on SCOTUSBlog’s calendar that there would be an opinion announced today, so this wasn’t a complete surprise, but these don’t happen every session, and you never know what opinion will be presented — “…in case No. 14-1055, Lightfoot versus Cendant Mortgage Corporation.” I was unfamiliar with this case. She read her prepared opinion summary. Turns out that federal courts don’t have automatic jurisdiction over cases that happen to involve Fannie Mae. Who knew?

Chief Justice Roberts then introduced the first case, “We’ll hear argument first this morning in case No. 15-1293, Lee versus Tam.” You can listen to the argument here. Counsel for Mr. Tam and the Slants did not have a good day. Here are some excerpts:

A third of the audience departed after Lee v. Tam, so the room was much less full for the second case, Ziglar v. Abassi. This case relates to how hundreds of middle eastern men were detained and treated in the weeks and months after 9/11. The main question before the court was: can the men who were detained sue then Attorney General John Ashcroft (and others responsible for the detention and conditions) in his personal capacity?

Only six justices heard the case, the minimum allowed. Justices Kagan and Sotomayor had each recused themselves from the already shorthanded court. This case has been around so long that they each probably worked on it in some capacity before their appointments to the Supreme Court.

It was very well argued by Ms. Merropol (grandchild of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg). She took every opportunity to turn the argument back to points she wanted to emphasize or clarify. She was prepared for every question and handled hypotheticals with consistency. The oral argument audio is here.

This was also Mr. Gershengorn’s final argument as Acting Solicitor General for President Obama.

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January 19, Museum Day

NPR HQ! They were not hosting tours that day, but I still got to see their history exhibit and gift shop, and now I have a new mug.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (that needs a shorter name) was out of passes, so I spent the afternoon in the Natural History Museum and then wandered the National Mall amongst the people who had already arrived for the inauguration the next day. The day-before-the-inauguration vibe was mostly one of spectacle and people watching people.

Washington, D.C.