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NOVEMBER 18, 2008
Everybody thought the Chief Justice had been shot by a silenced weapon. There was no sound of gunfire in the courtroom, what other explanation existed for the scene that started a panic run for the exits?
The Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, his face contorted in agony, suddenly snapped his head back and jumped up from his high-back leather chair, grabbing his head with both hands. Then he fell forward, hitting his forehead with a sickening thud on the mahogany bench, and landed in a fetal position on the dark burgundy carpet of the courtroom. The sound of this startling sight was amplified by the open mike on the bench in front of the now empty Chief Justice’s chair.
The attorney arguing her case at the podium stopped in midsentence, her mouth a red circle and her eyes wide with shock . . . and fear. Even though the case being argued was a rather dry and boring import-tax-rate case, the courtroom was nearly three-quarters full—a crowd relatively in excess of one hundred people, a large number at risk, if a terrorist shooter was in the room.
For just a moment, the courtroom was completely silent.
Everyone seemed frozen by what they had just witnessed.
A full second passed
. . . and then there was a sudden movement from behind the bench.
Associate Justice Oscar Moorman leaped up from his dark leather chair several seats from the center of the bench and quickly moved to the fallen Chief Justice.
His eyes studied the stricken justice closely.
Moorman bent over and calmly spoke into the Chief Justice’s mike: "Marshal, clear the courtroom. We have a medical emergency here. Is there a doctor in the courtroom? I repeat . . . we need a doctor now!"
His voice over the courtroom PA system was even and controlled with a firm air of authority. However, inside Justice Moorman was not calm. His mind was racing.
God, was the Chief Justice shot?
I thought I saw his head jerk back as if shot.
Is there a gunman here in the courtroom?
Moorman knew that the fact that he heard no shot fired didn’t necessarily mean the Chief wasn’t shot by a gun. A silenced weapon might have been used.
The U.S. Supreme Court was a very prime target for terrorists.
A successful attack on the heart of the American justice system would shock the world and show that America was vulnerable at its highest level. Moreover, any attack during an oral argument would be instantly seen by millions in real time since all hearings were televised live nationwide on the quasi-public network C-SPAN ever since the last term of the Supreme Court. (It was last September when the young Chief Justice Simmons had convinced the slimmest of a majority of the justices—five to four—to allow tele vision coverage via C-SPAN for all Supreme Court arguments.) Now there were four cameras in the courtroom, all discreetly operated via remote from the C-SPAN control room four blocks away. One camera in the rear of the courtroom, two on the sides, and one positioned immediately behind the bench to have a frontal shot of the attorney who was arguing the case at the podium. The Court had insisted that the televising operation be performed by unmanned cameras so that the TV presence would be as unobtrusive as possible and not distract from the oral arguments. Seeing the Supreme Court on TV now had become as boring to most Americans as the debates occurring on the floor of the U.S. Congress—the staple of C-SPAN programming.
The possibility that there was a terrorist attack in progress was foremost on Justice Moorman’s mind when he attended his fallen leader. He as a rational man naturally wanted to get out of the danger area—the courtroom . . . Nevertheless he didn’t. Moorman stayed and saw no one except the Supreme Court Marshal, John Abbot, who rushed up to him.
The Marshal said curtly, "Doesn’t appear to be a doctor here in the courtroom, sir." The Marshal’s hard brown eyes looked directly into Moorman’s. Moorman stood still and returned the stare of the Marshal.
"Medical team been called." Moorman didn’t waiver from looking for a doctor to emerge from the crowd in the courtroom.
No one came forward.
The Marshal whispered softly, "No doc, Mr. Justice. Up to you now. . . . Do your thing. I hear you were good at this once."
Moorman murmured, "John, it’s been too long. I’ve forgotten so much."
Last man I treated died—that was Justice Moorman’s thought as he realized he was the only person who could give medical attention to the fallen Chief Justice. Moorman remembered the stench of the drainage ditch, the heat, and the slick blood . . . so much blood. Moorman closed his eyes, shook his head, and tightened his jaws almost until he could feel his teeth crack.
God, please help me do this right, mouthed Moorman to himself.
The Supreme Court justice dropped down and started to give basic medical treatment to the man twitching on the floor, treatment Moorman had learned long ago before he went to war . . . to Vietnam.
Once Moorman was down on the floor next to the Chief Justice, the Marshal rushed off back to the phones at his station at the end of the long courtroom bench.
Communication was important in a crisis, and the Marshal was tethered to the phones and electronic equipment at his position.
Moorman found that Chief Justice Simmons had now moved on his side into a fetal position, his body and legs shaking in spasms. His eyelids were fluttering with the whites of the eyes mostly visible.
Moorman rolled the Chief Justice over on his back, and as he did so, the Chief Justice’s legs straightened out but continued shaking. Moorman tore open the Chief’s robe to examine him.
Moorman quickly needed the answer to a key question—was he shot or was he suffering from a purely medical condition.
First, he looked closely at the face of the twitching man. Out of the corner of his eyes, Moorman had seen the head of Simmons snap back just before he jumped up.
No blood there.
Moorman closely examined the front of the fallen man for any blood spotting on the white shirt that he was wearing.
Once that was completed, Moorman gently probed with his hand under Simmons’ body, checking for a possible wound in the back of his head and torso.
His hand came back without any blood on it.
Moorman was puzzled. There was no sign of a wound anywhere.
The sounds of screams from the courtroom pulled him back to the reality of the situation . . . and to his duty as a judge. He needed to stop the chaos in the courtroom. It was possible that he could have missed a small wound. It could have been an ultra-thin dart gun that leaves a nonbleeder wound. He had heard of such things from a friend in the Pentagon who was ex-Delta. Who knew what triggered the seizure? He wasn’t sure about the "shot" part, but he knew one thing for sure—someone needed to calm the rising panic in the courtroom. Moorman was the only one who had physically examined the Chief and he did have a little prior medical training. It was up to him. Although he was not the next-ranking justice, he knew sometimes circumstances picked a person to act and do what was necessary.
No visible wound, no bleeding. My best guess now is that the Chief is having a seizure brought on by some medical condition. I’ll go with that now. It will help calm the courtroom. Christ, I’m sure everyone thinks the Chief was shot . . . and that they’re next. Fear had to be controlled.
Moorman rose from behind the bench. Six feet and powerfully built with short cropped hair, Moorman projected a commanding presence in his black robe at the center of the tall bench. He grabbed the Chief Justice’s mike.
Again his calm deep voice floated over the courtroom.
"Attention. The Chief Justice is ill. There is no danger to anyone. Please be calm. There is no danger here. Please leave the courtroom quietly."
God, I hope I’m right.
As soon as he was finished with his "best guess" announcement, Moorman dropped down to help Simmons again. The man was in full seizure. His head was bouncing off the carpet. Moorman looked around and grabbed the thick seat cushion the smallish Chief Justice used to boost his height. Moorman used it as a pillow so the Chief Justice wouldn’t hurt his head as it hit the carpet with each violent contortion of his body in seizure. Also Moorman checked the airway of the Chief to make sure it was clear and pulled out his thick Mont Blanc pen to hold it in the mouth of the Chief to prevent him from biting his tongue. As he was holding the pen in place with his right hand, the strong smell of urine hit the nostrils of Moorman. With his other hand, Moorman felt the inside leg of the Chief Justice.
Wet pants! Damn! Definite signs of a grand mal seizure, thought Moorman.
It had been a long time since Oscar Moorman had given any medical treatment. The last time was in 1975. He was a nineteen-year-old Navy medical corpsman stationed with a Marine infantry company helping secure the main airport of Saigon while U.S Air Force planes were frantically evacuating the embassy staff and U.S. citizens in the final days of the Vietnam War. The last casualty Moorman treated was a Marine captain shot in the chest . . . and he died after Moorman had worked on him alone in a ditch under sniper fire, keeping him alive for almost twenty minutes—twenty long minutes—before he died. For his actions that day so long ago, Oscar Moorman was awarded the Silver Star, the third-highest Navy decoration for valor in combat.
All of the other justices had initially rushed from the courtroom via the exit behind the bench. Several had ducked down and crawled through the heavy burgundy curtains behind the bench to the safety of the small anteroom, which contained the rear door of the courtroom. One justice, running away, tripped over the thick cables leading to the sole C-SPAN camera mounted behind the bench and crashed to the floor before scampering out of the courtroom through the curtains.
Now two justices cautiously returned to the courtroom, Justices Vincent Bianco and Carolyn Ryland. They crawled back from behind the curtains and were both watching Moorman work on Simmons. Ryland was bent over, crouching behind the nearest chair. Bianco was on his hands and knees next to Moorman. The Supreme Court bench was probably the safest place to be if there was gunfire in the courtroom. Years ago, a thick wall of Kevlar had been fastened to the length of the dark mahogany bench. The bench was bulletproof up to the heaviest caliber of assault rifles.
Justice Vincent Bianco, a short squat man with a raspy voice, thinning black clearly dyed hair, and closely set brown eyes, urgently asked, "Was the Chief shot?"
Moorman briefly glanced to his side and caught the fear in Bianco’s eyes.
"I don’t know. I don’t think so, Vince. It looks like he’s having a seizure. But the Marshal may know for sure if there was a shooter in the courtroom using a silenced gun and some kind of chemical agent bullet. Remember his station has a high-tech monitor that can sniff gunfire smells . . . goddamn, Vince, I need to know that . . . Go get the Marshal back up here."
Bianco recoiled from the request as if it was a snake. He didn’t move off his knees.
"So there could be terrorists in the courtroom?" Bianco asked in a hushed voice.
"Yeah, there could be terrorists. I announced that there was no danger because I wanted to stop the panic in the courtroom," Moorman whispered back, conscious that there probably were open mikes on the bench.
Apparently that was all Bianco needed to know.
He crouched down farther, actually hugging the carpet hard. Moorman thought if Bianco could have chewed his way through the floor to the basement below he would have done it right at that moment. All the while, Bianco was staring vacantly into Moorman’s eyes.
Moorman knew from the look on his face that Bianco was going nowhere. The terrified justice was definitely not going to move over to the exposed end of the bench to get the Marshal. He thought of asking Carolyn Ry-land, the other justice, but decided to fall back on one of his old principles—when there’s an emergency situation and you want something done, do it yourself.
So Moorman, without moving from cradling the shaking judge, yelled at the top of his lungs, "Marshal, Get back here. I need you. ASAP!" His strong voice didn’t need the open bench mikes and operating PA system to be heard throughout the courtroom.
Within twenty seconds, U.S. Supreme Court Marshal John Abbot slid to a kneel beside Moorman. Abbot was alert and composed—ready for orders.
Moorman said in one breath. "I see no wounds on the Chief Justice. I’m thinking a medical seizure. Talk to me, John. Did the gun-sniffing monitor at your station register any gunfire?"
"Negative, Your Honor. Just checked my gear again. Absolutely no sign of any gunfire discharge. Looks like no terrorists here. Courtroom is being cleared. Your announcement helped on the panic. Latest on medical care—we can’t locate the nurse. My office thinks she may have wandered upstairs to the Court library. My people will find her though. Also the doctor from the U.S Capitol is on his way. ETA five minutes." Moorman liked that directness about him. Moorman had been the head of the three-justice search committee two years ago when the prior Marshal retired. He liked the quiet and efficient ex-military officer from the start of the interview. Moorman had been the key vote to hire him. And John Abbot knew it and appreciated it. Abbot, an ex-SEAL, would walk through a brick wall for Moorman.
"Got to get the nurse now, John, find her!" ordered Moorman.
The Marshal moved away quickly to the phone on his desk at the end of the bench. Moorman could hear Abbot shouting into the phone at the Marshal’s station.
Those first two minutes while Justice Moorman was administering emergency aid to the Chief Justice, the courtroom had been in controlled chaos. The Marshal of the Supreme Court had twelve Supreme Court plainclothes policemen in the courtroom, all armed with holstered 9mm Sigs concealed under their blue blazers. Ten of them were methodically clearing the public, the press, and the staff from the room. Two were positioned at each end of the bench with orders to shoot anyone who advanced upon the justices. The Marshal had practiced this emergency procedure several times a year with his police force and now the training showed. Moorman’s announcement and the professional manner of the police calmed things down.
Right at the beginning of the incident, Marshal John Abbot, a retired highly decorated Navy SEAL, had followed procedure and placed a call from the landline on his desk to his office alerting his staff to the situation in the courtroom and requesting the on-duty nurse in the Marshal’s office. In addition to the nurse and, according to the plan of a medical emergency at the Court, the duty doctor from the U.S. Capitol with a full emergency medical team just across First Street from the Supreme Court was summoned. The uniformed Supreme Court police would empty the courtroom and temporarily hold everyone in the public area of the massive marble foyer right outside the courtroom until they received a release order. A key provision of the emergency plan was a lockdown—the Supreme Court was now a sealed fortress. Only the medical team from the U.S. Capitol would be let in. No one was going out until the emergency was over.
Now that the courtroom was almost cleared, the Marshal stayed next to Moorman behind the long bench. Justices Bianco and Ryland had been joined by three other justices. Things were calming down. The Marshal quickly briefed the justices that it was a medical emergency not a terrorist attack. Bianco looked especially relieved when Moorman glanced over at him.
Then everything went south . . . very quickly.
Moorman faced another crisis.
He was the first to notice. The Chief Justice in his arms had stopped shaking . . . and breathing.
Moorman quickly bent his head over to check the Chief’s airway, and he put his finger on his neck to check for a pulse. The practiced actions of his past EMT life were returning.
"No pulse. No breathing. Get the defibrillator from the emergency gurney behind the curtains!" Moorman barked to the Marshal.
Moorman ripped open the shirt of the Chief Justice. The ivory buttons of the Chief’s white buttoned-down Brooks Brothers shirt bounced noiselessly on the carpet. Moorman’s dark ebony hands as they searched for the sternum were a sharp contrast to the pale thin hairless chest of Chief Justice William Simmons as Moorman started CPR. First, Moorman gave the one hard pound to the heart area. The thump startled the justices watching Moorman. Then fifteen pumps with his hands just below the sternum. Then two breaths mouth to mouth. Fifteen and two. Fifteen and two.
When the Marshal had the portable defib set up, Moorman used it. The mechanical voice from the machine talking him through the steps. The display on the machine continued to show a flat line for Simmons.
It was now over five minutes since Simmons had stopped breathing. The defib hadn’t restarted the heart. Still a flat line. Moorman looked up, his face grim and tired, and asked, "John, please get me a flashlight from the kit on the gurney. And check on the nurse and doctor again."
There was no urgency to his voice in that last request.
This man is dead. No pulse, no breathing, and I bet his eyes won’t respond to the flashlight, thought Moorman.
Excerpted from The Report to the Judiciary by Eugene Sullivan.
Copyright 2008 by Eugene Sullivan.
Published in August 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.