The Supreme Court Struggles to Estimate the Length of 35 Feet

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

The Supreme Court Struggles to Estimate the Length of 35 Feet

457923975-the-u-s-supreme-court-is-shown-from-the-dome-of-the-u-s
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.

Advertisement

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.

***Follow @JoshVoorhees and the rest of the @slatest team on Twitter.***

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Homeland Is Good Again! For Now.

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

The Ludicrous Claims Women Are Pitched at “Egg Freezing Parties”

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

Behold
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 1 2014 12:20 PM Don’t Expect Hong Kong’s Protests to Spread to the Mainland
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 1:11 PM This Company Wants to Fight World Hunger With Flies 
  Life
The Eye
Oct. 1 2014 1:04 PM An Architectural Crusade Against the Tyranny of Straight Lines
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 1:01 PM Can Activists Save Reyhaneh Jabbari?  
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 10:54 AM “I Need a Pair of Pants That Won’t Bore Me to Death” Troy Patterson talks about looking sharp, flat-top fades, and being Slate’s Gentleman Scholar.
  Arts
Behold
Oct. 1 2014 1:04 PM The Many Faces of Texas
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 AM Watch a Crowd Go Wild When Steve Jobs Moves a Laptop in This 1999 Demonstration of WiFi
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 1 2014 12:01 PM Rocky Snow
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.