Before I came to DC for my fellowship year, I really thought that Capitol Hill ended abruptly immediately east of the Capitol, much like Columbus falling off the edge of the flat Earth. Thus it came as a bit of a surprise to discover that the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress both occupied prime real estate located where my mental maps got very vague and were labeled as, “unknown and unexplored territory.”
In 1935, having been housed in with the legislative branch for over 100 years, the Supreme Court finally got its own building on Capitol Hill. The move happened in part because of need; there wasn’t any office space in the Capitol for the justices and their staffs, so they scattered about in different buildings. In part it was the leverage applied by Chief Justice and former President William Howard Taft, who unfortunately passed away before the completion of the new building.
The new Supreme Court building was constructed to be a Temple of Justice, and marble featuring prominently in the construction. For all the outer halls, the white marble was hauled in from a number of quarries in different states. The Supreme Court chamber, itself, was intended to provide a contrast with the other spaces, and it is made from a more yellow marble from Spain and Morocco.
My first visit to the Court was back in November when my friends, the Election Tourists, came to visit. We stood in line and were able to hear the second of two cases presented on the day before the election. I remember sitting on a wooden chair in the back row of the chamber trying to absorb everything that was happening. I had completely neglected to do any homework before I went, and since we had to stash all our belongings before we went in, there was no quick Google search to help me identify the justices. I recognized Chief Justice John Roberts in the center, and then the justices sit by seniority, alternating sides. I was able to identify the diminutive Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and then Justices Sonja Sotomayor and Elena Kagan on the outer edges as the two newest Associate Justices. Justice Clarence Thomas was easily recognizable, but the others I had to sort out by listening to the attorneys who would periodically drop a, “Yes, Justice Scalia…” into the mix.
I have two enduring memories of the experience of listening to a case. The first was that it was far worse than a Ph.D. dissertation defense. A committee of four faculty quizzing me on my work is nothing compared to nine justices peppering the attorneys with rapid fire questions. (Well, eight justices. Justice Thomas is well-known for not asking questions in the courtroom.) I was extremely impressed that the attorneys remained poised as they were answering questions and also apparently managed to cover all their major talking points as well. Each side gets only 30 minutes, and after one hour, the oral arguments are completed.
My other memory of watching the court in session was the justices in their chairs. Apparently the large black leather chairs have every motion possible designed in. Some justices would tip back so that they could barely be seen, whereas others would spin and rock. I could only imagine what a group of kindergarteners would do in those chairs!
More recently, my BFF and I visited when the court was not in session, and we arrived at the perfect time to catch a courtroom lecture for which we got to go in and sit in the bench seats for the public. In both cases, I had a very powerful sense of simply being present in a space where important decisions were handed down.
Like the Old Supreme Court Chamber in the Capitol, the new space has the justices sitting on a raised bench with tables for the lawyers in front. The Marshal, who keeps order and is in charge of security, sits at a desk to the right, and a desk for the Clerk, who keeps the calendar, is off to the left. No television cameras or any kind of electronics are allowed in the court; there is one official electronic recording made that is transcribed for the official record, which includes notations of who said what. The Press are only allowed paper and writing implements, and their gallery is off to the left. That’s why sketches of the action in the court always show the same perspective angle. Immediately behind the attorneys are chairs for any of the 250,000 lawyers who are members of the Supreme Court Bar who choose to show up for a case, and the public sits on wooden pew-like benches or wooden chairs behind.
During my Fellowship year, the Supreme Court heard and ruled on two cases involving the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). These cases involved strong partisans on both sides and were followed with great attention across the country. On the morning that the cases were heard, I took a stroll around the Supreme Court to check out all the demonstrators. People had filled the space in front of the building and had spilled out across the street onto the Capitol Side. There is usually one token protestor in front of the building, but it was quite apparent that a more contentious case was being heard. It was pretty thrilling to be able to wander around and observe.
Just recently, the decisions on the DOMA cases were handed down. This time I didn’t go out to watch, but it was significant that for the first time that I could remember in my office, half of the TV’s were turned to CNN while the other half were on the Senate floor. Of course, the volume was turned up on one of each, so it was rather noisy, but it was fun to be more aware than usual of the workings of the Court.
I remember during Orientation that we had a single lecture on the Judicial Branch of the government since all the Fellows were going to either the Legislative or Executive Branches. My impression at the time was that it was mildly interesting information, but working in such close proximity to the Supreme Court every day has significantly raised my awareness of the work of that body and how they interact with the other branches of the government. For the full Capitol Hill experience, it is worth a visit.