The last time most members of the Supreme Court attended a formal proceeding in the company of Sen. Arlen Specter, he was asking questions as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and they were answering as nominees seeking Senate confirmation.
Wednesday the tables were turned, and it was the justices, looking down from the bench with the comfort of life tenure, who were doing the asking. Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, was trying to persuade the court to let him sue the Navy to stop the planned closing of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.
It was the first time in more than 20 years that a member of Congress had argued a case before the court.
The justices treated Specter as they treat any lawyer; they drilled him with questions, interrupted his answers, challenged his analysis and, finally, cut him off in mid-sentence.
"Thank you, Senator Specter; your time has expired," Chief Justice William Rehnquist said blandly when the red light went on, indicating that the senator's 30 minutes had elapsed.
Specter, an experienced courtroom lawyer who argued and won two Supreme Court cases when he was the Philadelphia district attorney, held his own in the combative, slightly florid style familiar from his performances in the hearing room and on the Senate floor.
"Chief Justice Rehnquist, I respectfully disagree with you categorically," he said at one point as the two sparred over the meaning of a 1935 precedent.
Specter has an uphill battle in this case, which asks the court to declare that the government's selection of military bases for closing or downgrading is subject to challenge in federal court.
After the federal appeals court in Philadelphia ruled last year that a suit brought by Specter and two dozen other officials could proceed, the justices accepted the government's appeal.
The 193-year-old navy yard, scheduled to be phased out by next year, accounts for about 45,000 jobs in the Philadelphia area.
It was quite common in the last century for members of Congress to argue before the court. But recently the practice has been rare.