What’s a Harangue in High Court? You’ll Know It When You Hear It

  • Charge reinstated against five said to disrupt Supreme Court
  • Appellate panel assesses whether prohibitions were too vague

What constitutes a harangue? Within the walls of the U.S. Supreme Court, you’ll know it when you hear it.

A federal appeals court in Washington upheld the words "harangue" and "oration" in a criminal law used to charge five people for staging protests in the high court chamber on April 1, 2015. The meaning of the words is clear, the appellate court said.

The 3-0 panel ruling Friday overturned U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper’s December 2015 ruling that those words were too vague to be easily understood in modern usage. In support of his decision, Cooper quoted James Madison, the fourth president and co-author of the Federalist Papers.

In reversing him, the appeals court cited Judge Chamberlain Haller, the fictional judge portrayed by actor Fred Gwynne in the 1992 courtroom comedy film “My Cousin Vinny.”

The five people staged their protest near the one-year anniversary of a Supreme Court decision that struck down limits on the aggregate amount of money donors can give to federal candidates and parties.

One by one they stood facing the court, moments after it was gaveled into session, and shouted their dissent before being removed from the chamber, according to the panel’s ruling. After Chief Justice John Roberts warned those still in attendance that the disruptions were chargeable as criminal contempt, the last protester, lead defendant David Bronstein, stood up and sang “we who believe in freedom shall not rest.”

He too was removed. All five were charged with two criminal counts, the first involving picketing and the other making it a crime to "make a harangue or oration, or utter loud, threatening or abusive language" in the Supreme Court building. The defendants challenged the second law as unconstitutionally vague.

Cooper agreed in part, citing Madison’s observation that “no language is so copious as to supply words and phrases for every complex idea, or so correct as not to include many equivocally denoting different ideas.” Harangues and orations were, respectively, anachronistic and ambiguous, Cooper said. But he didn’t entirely dismiss the charge as he said the meaning of "loud" was plain.

The U.S. appealed and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed, determining that the law’s meaning was clear in context.

“A person of ordinary intelligence could read this law and understand that, as a member of the Supreme Court’s oral-argument audience, making disruptive public speeches is clearly proscribed behavior,” Judge Janice Rogers Brown wrote for the court. Joining her were Judges Sri Srinivasan and Stephen F. Williams.

“Their coordinated standing, facing the bench, and messaging indicate the appellees were addressing the court and gallery,” Brown said. She then cited movie Judge Haller’s reprimand of the stumbling-yet-tenacious defense lawyer portrayed by actor Joe Pesci: “Don’t talk to me sitting in that chair!... When you’re addressing this court, you’ll rise and speak to me in a clear, intelligible voice.”

Defense lawyer Jeffrey Light, who handled the case in the lower court, declined to comment on the appellate ruling, deferring to District of Columbia Federal Public Defender A.J. Kramer, who argued the issue on appeal. Kramer didn’t immediately reply to an emailed request for comment.

The case is U.S. v. Bronstein, 16-3003, U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit (Washington).

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