We keep hearing that the six hours the Supreme Court has scheduled for arguments on the Obama Health Care Law show how significant this case will be. For once, we in the news media, always eager for a good story, are not exaggerating the weightiness of this case, if the hours of argument in other cases serve as a measure of importance.
In one of the bedrock cases of constitutional law, McCullough v. Maryland, it took the lawyers nine days to make their cases in 1819. (In the early days of Washington women regularly went to watch the court arguments for amusement, and wrote that the lawyers often re-stated their arguments in more flowery language once the ladies arrived on the scene.)
In the end the court ruled that Congress had the right to charter banks, even though that power was not specified in the Constitution. The legislative branch has used that “implied power” ever since.
In more recent history, arguments over the famous desegregation case of Brown v. Board of Education and its implementation took more than 28 hours in total over three different hearings. And then in 1966, the last time the court sat through six hours of arguments, two cases where the justices did just that are still very much part of ongoing American legal wrangling.
One, South Carolina v. Katzenbach, tested the 1965 voting rights bill outlawing many impediments to voting. Though the court upheld the law, a landmark in the history of civil rights, it continues to be tested today by states that have recently passed measures requiring official identification documents for voters.
And finally, the last six-hour session was in the case of Miranda v. Arizona where the court decided that accused criminals must be informed of their rights to legal representation. The so-called “Miranda Rule” has become familiar in TV police dramas, but it is continually the subject of more court cases.
So — does long equal important when it comes to Supreme Court arguments? If history is any guide, the answer is decidedly yes.