The Supreme Court Struggles to Estimate the Length of 35 Feet

The Slatest
Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Jan. 15 2014 1:58 PM

The Supreme Court Struggles to Estimate the Length of 35 Feet

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Does anyone have a really long tape measure?

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Supreme Court on Wednesday heard oral arguments over the constitutionality of the 35-foot buffer zone that Massachusetts has created around abortion clinics in the Bay State. The state law prohibits anyone from standing within 35 feet of the entrance of any reproductive health care facility that performs abortions (unless, of course they're entering the facility or passing through to the other side). But, as Politico SCOTUS correspondent Josh Gerstein pointed out this afternoon, "35-foot buffer zone" was a whole lot easier to say than to conceptualize for some of the justices on the high court and lawyers in the court room. A sampling, via Gerstein:

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

There was Justice Elena Kagan's attempt: "You know, 35 feet is a ways. It's from this bench to the end of the court," she said. "It's pretty much this courtroom. ... That's a lot of space." The problem: According to the court's website, the chamber measures 82 feet wide by 91 feet long.

Deputy Solicitor General Ian Gershengorn came closer with his guestimation, but was still a decent ways off: "It is from me to the marshal [who sits next to the justices], not to the back of the courtroom. It is an NBA three-point zone," he said. In reality, however, the NBA three-point line is actually 23 feet, 9 inches from the basket (except in the corners, where it's 22 feet). So closer, but still no cigar.

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Fortunately, the third time was the charm for the courtroom. Justice Sonia Sotomayor came to the rescue with a rough—but fairly accurate—estimate: "It's two car lengths," she said. Obviously, there's plenty of variables at play with that estimate, but it's definitely in the ballpark. A Toyota Camry, for example, is nearly 16 feet from end to end.

Given the court's spatial struggles, perhaps it's a good thing that many observers don't expect the case to come down to a matter of a specific distance. "I would be very, very surprised if the Supreme Court will now get involved in the micromanagement of feet," Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said after the day's arguments wrapped up.

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