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It was Halloween Day, and the Supreme Court was deep into a dense oral argument on the subject of state sovereignty and bankruptcy. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was in the middle of asking a question. Suddenly a shot rang out — or so it seemed. A rare moment of high court confusion ensued. The sound was actually that of a light bulb exploding in the coffered ceiling high above the justices. But one eyewitness likened the noise to a flash-bang grenade, used in war to disorient the enemy. The explosion did cause momentary disarray and alarm. Ginsburg jumped from her seat as Court police moved toward the bench, uncertain what kind of incident was underway. A flaming filament floated downward and burned out, while bits of glass rained down on the swallowtail morning coats of Court Clerk William Suter and deputy clerk Gary Kemp, seated near Ginsburg. They brushed themselves off, unruffled. The justices themselves were unharmed. Seconds later, Justice Stephen Breyer rendered his verdict on what had happened: “Light bulb went out!” Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. moved quickly to cut the tension, calling the incident “a trick they play on new chief justices all the time.” The remark had the desired effect, and people began laughing. Justice Antonin Scalia chimed in, “Happy Halloween!” And Ginsburg, barely missing a beat, started to resume her question. But Roberts could not resist one more crack: “We’re even more in the dark now than before,” he said, as the justices and spectators settled down. At the end of the argument, Roberts thanked the lawyers and apologized “for the fireworks.” The unlucky lawyer arguing before the Court at the time of the explosion was Kim Martin Lewis, partner at the Cincinnati firm Dinsmore & Shohl, arguing her first Supreme Court case: Central Virginia Community College v. Katz. “It absolutely sounded like a shot,” Lewis said afterward. “There was this little ball of fire, and then the glass. It scared the heck out of me.” But Lewis appreciated the justices’ lighthearted remarks as she tried to get her argument back on track. “They seemed to empathize with a first-time advocate.” She is able to laugh about it now, and says she has been telling friends ever since she got home, “At least the justices won’t forget me.” Meanwhile, Lewis’ adversary in the case, Virginia Solicitor General William Thro, was able to observe the wild episode with more detachment; his argument had concluded. “When it happened, I never thought it was anything but an exploding light bulb,” Thro said afterward. Of Lewis, he said admiringly, “I don’t think it ruffled her at all.” The episode reminded Thro of another rare event his predecessor William Hurd encountered at the Supreme Court. During the 2002 arguments in Virginia v. Black, a First Amendment challenge to a cross-burning law, Justice Clarence Thomas — who almost never speaks at oral argument — made a powerful statement about the Ku Klux Klan’s “reign of terror” in the South. “It shows you that when Virginia solicitors general argue at the Supreme Court,” Thro said, “something interesting is going to happen.”

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