“No amount of planning will ever replace dumb luck.”— Old saying
I love this time of the year. Harvest moons. Fall festivals. The U.S. Supreme Court …
An opportunity to cover a small town event, writing stories as it became national news, provided me the first-hand opportunity to see a case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. That experience instilled in me an appreciation for the first Monday in October, the start of each new Supreme Court session.
I also love old sayings, like, “No amount of planning will ever replace dumb luck.” Granted, a more sensible adage is the Old Italian saying, “Success is 90-percent hard work. And, if you aren’t lucky, just work harder.” However, much can also be said for being in the right place at the right time. It has been a factor in many memories from my years in journalism that I would not swap for anything.
It certainly was a factor in Boerne, Texas, where I published the newspaper and wrote most of the stories covering a lawsuit that was ultimately heard by the highest court in the land. In 1996, the Catholic Archbishop of San Antonio, Patrick Flores, applied for a permit to replace the 1920s mission style St. Peter’s Church atop a hill at the south of end of Main Street. The city denied saying the church sat within a historical district. The Archbishop sued based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993. Boerne won in District Court, Flores appealed. The Fifth Circuit in New Orleans reversed the ruling, and Boerne filed to the Supreme Court for review. It was accepted and hearing was set for February 19, 1997 at 10:00 a.m.
At first, I didn’t plan to go. “Time and expense,” was my rationale. Picking up major stories from a number of sources is easy and often more practical for small town papers. All great logic before I had lunch with long-time and well-respected Boerne attorney and friend, Gordon Hollon. Mr. Hollon was a good lawyer and therefore naturally astute. I suspect he already heard I wasn’t planning to go. When I affirmed it, he replied, “I’ve been in the legal profession all my life and never seen the Supreme Court in action. How many small town editors do you know who have had the opportunity you have before you?”
I‘ve counted many lawyers as friends over the years, and all bore one common trait: it’s hard to argue against them. This would be not only a once in a lifetime news reporting for a small town newspaper, but also a once in a lifetime story for the reporter to tell. Press credentials were easy to obtain once they learned the Star was the Boerne newspaper—easier than physically getting into the court room. That required three metal detectors and a briefing: no cameras or recording devices, only a note pad and a pen allowed. Oh, and don’t touch the press gallery railing. I momentarily forgot that one putting my hand on it to straighten my chair and was swiftly reminded by a bailiff.
Seated in the second row, I was surrounded by BBC, CNN, AP and others with much larger audiences than the Boerne Star enjoyed. Beyond that, watching Justices Rehnquist, Kennedy, Breyer, Souter, Stevens, Thomas, Ginsburg, O’Connor and Scalia was sobering. Nothing regarding the historically steeped significance of where I sat that day escaped me.
The court rules only on the constitutionality of the law on which cases are based. Each is allotted 30 minutes—15 minutes per side, then it’s over. Keeping up and taking notes was near impossible as neither attorney enjoyed the luxury of finishing many of his or her statements. Two of the finest church-and-state attorneys in the country at the time—Marci Hamilton from San Antonio representing Boerne, and Jeffery S. Sutton for the Archbishop—fielded almost constant interruptions by the justices questioning their application of precedent case law, or finer points of interpretation . One would swear the justices knew where the attorneys were going before either finished making a point.
Arguments over, time for phase two of the small-town editor rubbing elbows with the major news outlets. Out the door with my camera, I hurried to the front steps where reporters gathered around Ms. Hamilton. Finding a perch on the wall beside the steps, I shot several frames looking down at the press bombarding her with questions. Digital photography and email still a vision of the future then, I walked three blocks with the film to a FedEx office and checked, “Early Next Day,” for Boerne. Moments later, I was on the phone dictating the story to our editor, Travis Priddy.
On my flight home the next day, reading a USA Today story about the case already dubbed as “landmark” made me smile for two reasons. One, knowing readers of the Boerne Star would be reading the same news the same day, with photos, because a small town publisher was in the right place at the right time and had luck on his side. And, two, because the small town publisher had one more story worth telling.
Epilogue—The court sided with Boerne’s argument and ruled the RFRA unconstitutional. The city extended the Archbishop the same offer it had before legal action began—build a new facility attached to, but preserving, the original. That’s what you will see at the end of Main Street if you drive through Boerne today.