This is it. The case that comes around once every 50 years. The kind of case that someday our grandchildren’s children will download directly to the memory chip in their brains from the Amazon textbook cloud.
I was going to be a constitutional lawyer once. The closest I got was the LSAT exam room (which put an end to that dream) but I still have a soft spot in my logic-puzzle-challenged mind for the Supreme Court.
When you’re fighting for a cause today, who you gonna call? Congress? Ha! Hahahaha. Hardly. The White House? Good luck getting through unless you’re calling collect from Russia or the Middle East. That leaves just one head of government that is still functioning: SCOTUS.
Are the Supremes perfect? My colleagues who work with Planned Parenthood can assure you over four rounds of Hobby-Lobby-bashing drinks that they’re not. But are they doing something that’s making a difference (for better and worse)? Yes.
You can’t pressure justices the same way you can pressure lawmakers. John Roberts isn’t going to see a petition for marriage equality on his Facebook feed and go, “Oh yeah cool let’s do that.” Even though the Court’s rulings are largely out of your control, you can still shape the storyline before, during and after the hearing with the public.
We’ve seen our clients (how’s it goin’, GLAD, Human Rights Campaign, EarthRights International, Planned Parenthood) harness the power of court cases for years – even the ones they lose. Want to win big in the court of public opinion? Here’s some advice for you from M+R’s SCOTUS campaigners as interpreted by John Oliver’s SCOTUS dog troupe.
Make a case for the case. There are some hearings that are media magnets and will make front page news without even trying. But so many other important cases that affect your cause are at risk of being ignored unless you do something. Set up coffees or hold a group breakfast briefing with influential reporters, send out ed board memos, host stakeholder briefings or tele-townhalls, and create some Facebook image shares and supporter stakeholder/celeb tweets to make some noise and get on the ‘10 SCOTUS Cases to Watch This Season’ lists.
Work together, people! Collaborate with another group or groups to file joint amicus briefs and then share them with press or host a media telebriefing so reporters know you’re thinking about the case when they start writing about it. When the hearing day arrives, remember that groups that usually don’t get along look great standing side-by-side out front on the SCOTUS steps.
Tell stories. Save the legal jargon for the courtroom. Only 9 people in the country need to hear you sound smart in Latin. For everybody else (reporters, Facebook fans, email supporters), tell a personal story that explains why the case matters and what’s at stake. The public’s lasting verdict is based on who they’re rooting for in the story and has zip-a-dee-doo-dah to do with the law.
Make a meme. This one is hard. But as evidenced by how many of your lazy Facebook friends still have a red HRC logo as their profile pic, it can be done if you do #s 1-3 well enough to build buzz and spark a passion so personal in people that it becomes their virtual identity.
Be on top of your s#!t. When you’re dealing with SCOTUS, it is never too early to have your gameplan, spokespeople, tweets, and press statements ready. Unless RBG is your mole, you’re not going to have much advance notice of your hearing or decision date. They can sneak up on you.
Never quit. The lawyers get to go golfing or charge someone else $1000/hour when they’re done making their arguments on hearing day. You aren’t so lucky. Between the hearing day and the ruling day, your team should still be busy coming up with new activities and angles that keep the public and press caring about the case’s outcome. Even when the ruling comes out, you need to have a plan for the long-haul because win or lose, this is not the end of the fight.
On a personal note, thanks to all those people who actually became constitutional lawyers out there. You have pushed this movement in ways I didn’t think were possible half my lifetime ago. Go Mary Bonauto and GLAD. Go Douglas Hallward-Driemeier. Go plaintiffs who are bravely standing with your families on a national stage. Go all you flag-waving, hand-holding, love-loving advocates. Go equality. This is it. We’ll see you on the steps on Tuesday.