Yale alumna one of three arrested for pro-choice protest at Supreme Court
Emily Paterson ’99, along with two other women, was arrested during a Nov. 2 Supreme Court hearing for interrupting judicial proceedings.
Courtesty of Emily Paterson
Somewhere in the District of Columbia, on their way to federal court, three women started singing.
Sustaining themselves off of about 24 hours of limited food and water, with their hands reportedly zip-tied together behind their backs, the protestors were traveling from the D.C. Central Cell Block to their court hearing. They had been arrested on Nov. 2 for interrupting a Supreme Court case dealing with the Bank Secrecy Act to publicly oppose the Court’s decision to overturn nearly 50 years of federally-protected abortion rights this past June.
The women were charged with a misdemeanor offense of “Speeches and Objectionable Language in the Supreme Court Building,” according to legal documents provided to the News. Now, they await a formal trial on Nov. 29 — at which point they could face up to about two months of jail time.
Among the protestors was Emily Paterson ’99, a Morse College alumna.
“I started singing because I didn’t know what else to do,” Paterson, who is 45, told the News. Her words were periodically interrupted by a cough she thought she caught from another individual while in jail. “You have nothing, your hands are behind you, my friend’s crying. Our brains were so tired.”
At about 4:30 a.m., the women had lined up outside the Court, which allows up to 50 people in to watch oral arguments on a first-come, first-serve basis. At 9:55 a.m., the admitted public observers — including the three women — received an introductory set of instructions, including an expectation from a police officer that they “remain seated and silent” during the Court’s session, according to legal documents.
By 10:00 a.m., the women were seated in three different sections of the room, and the nation’s high court had convened for its argument session. Two minutes later, per the complaint, the women began to individually rise to each say their piece.
In an audio file of the interruptions provided by Paterson, the first two women are barely discernible, but the last voice comes through clearly: “We will restore the freedom to choose!” said Nicole Enfield, another Virginia resident who protested and was jailed alongside Paterson and Rolande Baker.
“Our intention was to try to get attention ahead of the election to remind American women to vote,” Paterson explained. “We knew we had about five seconds to talk before we would be escorted out, so we thought really carefully about what we would say. I stood up first and said, ‘I respectfully rise to denounce Dobbs. Women of America: Vote!’”
Immediately after their interruptions, the women were arrested — “literally put our arms out to be handcuffed,” Enfield said — and first held for about five hours in a conference room inside the Supreme Court itself. They were then moved by the Metropolitan D.C. Police System to get their fingerprints taken, traveling in a “hellish, coffin-like paddywagon,” according to Paterson.
Ultimately, the three of them spent the night in the D.C. Central Cell Block, a detention facility separate from the rest of D.C. jails that holds arrested individuals while prosecutors decide whether or not to charge them with a crime. According to Paterson, they spent 16 hours in D.C. Central.
The next afternoon, they were transported to federal court, where they were placed in leg irons and waist chains with their hands manacled to their waists.
Looking toward their upcoming trial on Nov. 29, Paterson said their charges carry a maximum sentence of 60 days in prison.
“My biggest fear is more jail time,” Enfield, who is 43, said. “Emily literally stood and set the tone with saying ‘we respectfully rise.’ … We were very mindful about not wanting to frighten anyone or be seen as threatening in any way. We were just calling on women to vote for their rights back. So I think more jail time would be an absolute disproportionate response to the action.”
In an email to the News, Yale Law School professor Linda Greenhouse said an action like this one is not necessarily protected under free speech. Specifically, Greenhouse noted that there is “no First Amendment right” allowing people to interrupt court proceedings, whether at the nation’s high court or any other court. A peaceful protest outside a courthouse, however, may raise a different legal context based on its specific circumstances, according to Greenhouse.
“This was an act of civil disobedience,” Greenhouse wrote. “Historically, those who engage in civil disobedience expect that in return for being arrested and punished, they will bring publicity to their cause.”
Paterson said that going into their act of protest, the women knew there was a possibility of arrest and possibly being held overnight. What they did not expect, however, were their “deplorable” conditions of confinement.
The women all discussed “inhumane” conditions within the jails, particularly the Central Cell Block.
They described suffocating heat — over 90 degrees — metal bunk bed frames without mattresses and poor medical care, especially for Baker, who has a physical disability.
“Nikki had stripped down to her sports bra, and she gave me her tank top because it was so hot,” Paterson recalled. “We rolled up our pants, we took our shoes and socks off, and we’re walking on this disgusting bloodstained smith floor in our bare feet because we were so hot. We were in survival mode, whatever we could do to get through the night. Every time a guard walked by, we’d ask them for water. Some would say yes. Most would say no.”
This is not the first time this particular jail has come under fire for high temperatures. This past May, NBC4 reported an air conditioning outage in the facility. A 2015 report from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs also described “appalling conditions of confinement” in D.C. prisons, noting pest infestations and other structural violations among other factors.
The public information office at the D.C. Department of Corrections did not respond to the News’ request for comment.
The protestors also acknowledged the role that their race – they are all white women – played in their experience. Paterson noted that aside from the three of them, all the other prisoners picked up that night were Black.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege as an upper-middle-class white woman who went to Yale and runs her own business,” Paterson said. “It was not lost on us, as three white women, that even during the worst moments of our experience, we knew we were getting out of that situation. In that system, many of these other women were trapped in a situation where they had no power, no one helping them, they had no support.”
This protest at the Supreme Court was Paterson’s first time engaging in an action anywhere close to this magnitude. Part of her motivation was the “power” afforded to her, specifically by her Yale education. Three of the justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade — Brett Kavanaugh ’87 LAW ’90, Clarence Thomas LAW ’74 and Samuel Alito LAW ’75 — are University alumni. Justice Sonia Sotomayor LAW ’79, who jointly wrote the dissenting opinion in the Dobbs v. Jackson case, is also a Yale Law School alum.
Paterson hopes her actions prompt Yale students to move past their comfort zones to effect change, noting that “nothing has ever changed” in the United States without resistance.
“The message that I would like to get across to Yale students is use your power,” she said. “I might have more power being a white upper-middle-class woman, but everyone has some level of power. Graduating from Yale affords you a certain power.”
The Supreme Court public information office did not respond to requests for comment on this specific arrest or on the general protocol of handling in-house protests.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — which deferred jurisdiction on abortion rights to individual states — overturned both the 1973 Roe decision as well as a later ruling in 1992’s Casey v. Planned Parenthood that upheld the federal constitutional right to an abortion.
Baker, who is now 71, sought an abortion before the landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade that afforded Americans this federal right. She was also involved in helping people travel to states that allowed abortions.
“Any person who is of child-bearing age right now, I’m so fearful for you,” Baker, a retired public school teacher of over 30 years, said. “I cannot fucking believe I’m doing this all over again. It just enrages me. We already did this.”
As of Nov. 15, most abortions are now banned in at least 13 states, per the New York Times’ ban tracking tool.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated the potential maximum sentence as both six months and 60 days. The accurate potential maximum is 60 days.