The Supreme Court hears a major civil rights case today on same-sex marriage. As you might surmise, there are a lot of folks with a very personal stake in its outcome. Many of those people might want to actually witness history and be present when the case is argued before the court. As Slate tells it, that isn’t so easy (Not All Must Rise, Apr 27).
For many Americans, the arguments in the marriage equality cases will be the most important inflection of the court into the very core of their homes, their lives, and the status of their families. Many of those Americans started lining up Friday, four days before arguments that will take place on Tuesday morning, for a chance to witness one of the most important moments in Supreme Court history.
Many other Americans simply paid a line-standing service $50 an hour to secure a place for them.
Starting Friday, if you or your law firm had $6,000 to shell out, a paid proxy—a company such as LineStanding.com or Washington Express—would arrange to have someone hold your place in line. The fact that some of these line-standers appear to be either very poor or homeless and may have to stand in rain, snow, sleet, or hail so that you don’t have to irks at least some people who feel that thousands of dollars shouldn’t be the fee to bear witness to “Equal Justice Under the Law”—the words etched over the door to the Supreme Court building—in action.
The article goes on to note that because the court hearing room is small and various seats are reserved for guests of the justices, media types and so on only 70 or seats are available for the general public. Yesterday morning, Slate reports that 67 people were already in line and that many weren’t overly forthcoming when asked for whom they were waiting.
Two questions come to mind with this. The first is whether this is per se bad. An economist would say that allocating based on price allows access to be allocated to those who value the experience the most. However, value here is something that is very hard to convert into money for many people. The article reports that parents and children of some of the plaintiffs may be left out in the cold. They may well have a high value for being there but may be unable to commit days to personally waiting or unable hire someone to wait in their stead. Put another way, there are lots academic models out there that include some measure of waiting costs but I am not aware of any that pair waiting costs with a budget constraint.
A second issue is that this market seems easy to manipulate. How early one has to queue to get inside depends on how early others queue. Now suppose you run a line waiting service. You don’t have to have a client in hand to start camping out. There is nothing that says you can’t start waiting on spec. If I ran a line-waiting service and had sufficiently deep pockets, I would try to monopolize the line. If someone moves first and grabs the first twenty places in line, everyone else needs to get in line as well. And that makes my spots in line more valuable.
So what are the fixes here? The article suggests that this would go away if the court would just allow television cameras. I’m not buying that. Yes, TV would allow everyone to watch the arguments but that is not the same as witnessing them in person. The Mayweather-Pacquiao fight will be on TV but people are still spending a lot of money on tickets.
An alternative fix is a lottery. If your chance of getting served is independent of when you got in line, then there is no point to queuing early. It’s worth noting that private firms — from Apple to the Cubs — on occasion do this. It may mean that someone who is just curious and not particularly vested may end up with a ticket, but it at least levels the playing field across wealth in getting to see history being made.