Of all the entities that have occupied the Capitol, the Supreme Court has been the most peripatetic. When the original Capitol structure was completed in 1800, the Senate, the House, the Supreme Court, and the Library of Congress all had to share space. The size of the House of Representatives probably made it logical for them to be the first group to get their own space, and eventually the original shared chamber was partitioned into an upper room for the Senate and a lower room for the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court occupied the lower room from 1810-1860 until the Senate moved into their current chamber, and the Supreme Court took their old space. In 1935, the Supreme Court at last moved to their own building across the street.
In 1975, the Capitol underwent a major renovation for the Bicentennial, and the old Senate Chamber on the second floor and the Old Supreme Court Chamber on the first floor were restored to their looks in that early-to-mid 19th century appearances.
The entrance to the Old Supreme Court chamber is through the robing room, where the justices would don their ceremonial robes. Once inside the chamber with its semicircular vaulted ceiling, my first impression is always, “Wow, it’s dark.” The room would have been lit with whale oil lanterns or candles, which would not have thrown much light. Whenever possible, the original furniture has been used, but when those pieces were not available, reproductions have been created to replicate the originals.
At the front of the chamber are the nine chairs for the justices, but I always notice immediately that they don’t all match. At that time, the justices were allowed to select whatever chair felt comfortable, so the different styles represent common options during the early 19th century. When justices retired, they were allowed to take their chairs with them, but three of the chairs are originals, donated back by the justices’ families.
On pillars around the chamber are the busts of the first four Chief Justices, with the bust of Roger Taney, the fifth Chief Justice, in the robing room. When the Supreme Court was first created, no one really knew how it was supposed to work or whether or not it would be important, so the earliest justices retired after relatively short stints. Long tenures on the Court became more the norm with Chief Justice John Marshall, who served for 34 years. His successor, Chief Justice Taney, apparently embraced a formal and dignified tone for the court; some might call him a control freak in modern times, but I see nothing wrong with that. Taney had a clock installed on the back wall and set five minutes fast because he absolutely loathed people being late.
When my BFF was visiting, we did the new Supreme Court and this old chamber only a few hours apart. That juxtaposition allowed me to see that the layout of the courtroom is consistent between the old and the new with the same desks for the marshal, sergeant-at-arms, and clerk.
In the center of the old chamber are four tables. The front two were for the attorneys arguing the first case, and the rear pair of tables were effectively the on-deck circle for the next case to be heard. After one case finished, the lawyers would swap positions. I can understand why the modern court instituted a 60 minute limit for hearing cases, since there was no corresponding limit in the original court.
Immediately in front of the justices facing the attorneys’ tables are several red velvet benches. These were for visitors to the court. In the early days of the Capital as it was just being constructed, it was not a city filled with marble and gilt. Indeed, there were very limited opportunities for society, so a number of wives who were stuck with nothing to do would go to the Capitol to watch what was going on. I believe Dolly Madison was a regular visitor. So those red velvet benches were for spectators.
On the back wall over the clock is a mural featuring Justice in the center bearing her sword and scales. One of the most unusual aspects of this depiction of Justice is that she is not blindfolded. Guides assure visitors that it was simply the style of the time that Justice had both eyes open.
Of the famous decisions that were handed down in this chamber, the Dred Scott decision is the one that resonated most with me. I remember in eighth grade having to memorize that the Dred Scott decision, which addressed the issue of whether or not slaves were citizens and had standing to sue in a federal court and the second issue of whether or not Congress had the authority to regulate slavery in territories acquired after the formation of the United States. I learned it as one of the 10 steps that led to the Civil War, and it was pretty much just part of a list. Learning recently that every justice in the 7-2 ruling wrote an individual concurrence or dissent tells me just how thorny an issue it was. To be in the space where that case was debated and resolved made it much more than a line in a history book.
The actual room has had a variety of uses. When the Supreme Court moved upstairs to the Old Senate Chamber in 1860, the room was used as a law library. When the Court moved to its own building in 1935, the room was divided into four parts and was used by the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. (A Joint Committee has both Senate and House members.) By the 1960’s, the room was abandoned and it was vacant until the 1975 restoration. It is now a regular stop on the Capitol tour, I assume if groups are small enough.
Especially for the Inauguration but also for the State of the Union, there are dignitaries stashed in all of the various nooks and crannies of the Capitol. I was charmed to learn that for those two events, the current Supreme Court Justices hang out in the old chamber prior to the main event. I appreciate that connection, and I suspect that the Justices do as well.