The Supreme Court and the Law of the Land

The Great Tours: Washington, D.C.—Lecture Four Guide

The Supreme Court has played a vital role in shaping American laws, upholding rights, and balancing the powers of the other two branches of government. Since 1935, it has resided in the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C., at 1 First Street NE. Go inside the heart of American jurisprudence and explore this stunning institution from the ground up.

In this guide, we will discuss:
• The Supreme Court Building’s layout
• Visiting the Supreme Court
• The Supreme Court in action
• The Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument

Watch the video introduction below, then let’s get started!

The Supreme Court Building’s Layout

The center section of the Supreme Court Building resembles the Parthenon of Athens. The triangular pediments on each end feature relief sculptures. The West Pediment, facing the Capitol, features allegorical figures.

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The East Pediment features three great historical lawgivers: Moses, Solon, and Confucius. Flanking them are allegorical groups representing law enforcement, justice tempered with mercy, settlement of dispute between the states, and maritime law.

Most visitors enter the building on the west side. Crossing the wide, oval plaza with its fountains and flagpoles, visitors climb the stairs between two sculptures. To the left is the Contemplation of Justice, and to the right is the Authority of Law. These were created by American sculptor James Earle Fraser.

The entrance to the court is through two enormous bronze doors. The doors depict scenes from the history of Western law, including King John of England sealing the Magna Carta and an image of a former chief justice, John Marshall.

Through the doors is the Great Hall. Here, between the columns, you will find busts of each of the former chief justices. The hall leads to the Supreme Court Chamber. The room’s wooden furnishings are all mahogany. The columns are Italian marble. The marble on the floor, walls, and ceiling comes from Italy, Spain, and Africa. High on the walls are two pairs of friezes.

The Great Hall is flanked by wings to the north and south, each of which surrounds two courtyards. The first and second floors of these wings contain the justices’ offices, conference rooms, and administrative offices, and so on.

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The third floor contains the Supreme Court Library. It contains 600,000 print volumes, 200,000 microforms, and numerous electronic sources covering US state and federal law, British case law, constitutional law, and history. The library’s main function is to assist the justices and their clerks in understanding the relevant laws and precedents for any case that might come before the Supreme Court.

Finally, the ground floor of the building houses visitor services, including a museum space. The museum’s changing roster of exhibitions covers topics like the history of the court and the building, landmark Supreme Court cases, and the life and work of former justices.

A Home for the Court

While many people—especially the justices themselves—felt that the Supreme Court needed its own building, Congress was reluctant fund the project for decades. The man who finally persuaded Congress to give the court a home of its own was a chief justice and former president, William Howard Taft. Architect Cass Gilbert looked to the White House and Capitol for his inspiration, creating a structure in white Vermont marble.

Visiting the Supreme Court

Washington D.C. Supreme Court steps with visitors
The Supreme Court is open to visitors from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every weekday, except for federal holidays.

Visitors to the Supreme Court can enjoy self-guided tours of the museum and Great Hall, guided tours of the Court Chamber, and viewings of court proceedings when the court is in session. The building is open to visitors from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every weekday, except for federal holidays.

Visitor entrances are found to the north and south of the main staircase. Security is predictably high, so be mindful of what you carry with you. Photography is allowed within the Great Hall, but not within the courtroom.

The highlight of any visit to the Supreme Court is watching the court in action. Terms of court typically run from October through June. From October to April, the justices’ time is divided into two-week sittings, alternating with two-week recesses. During each sitting, the justices will hear two hour-long arguments—one at 10:00 a.m. and one at 11:00 a.m.—each Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. During recesses, the judges research, consider, and discuss the cases and write their decisions. Decisions are usually handed down at the end of each term, in May and June.

The Supreme Court Cases

Supreme court judge gavel close up
The Supreme Court does not decide about the facts of a case. It also does not create any laws.

About 80 cases are heard and decided in each term, out of 8,000 or more petitions that the court typically receives each year. Much consideration and preparation goes into the process of selecting cases. For the Supreme Court to hear a case, it has to meet several criteria:

  • First, the case must have been argued in the lower federal courts. Alternatively, it could be a state court case with an issue at hand that affects federal law.
  • Second, the case must have exhausted all of its appeals in the lower court system. Alternatively, judges in the appeals court might request guidance from the Supreme Court before making a ruling, but that is rare.

The justices’ law clerks weed out the petitions that don’t meet these criteria and pass on the rest for the justices’ consideration. The clerks then write a memo for each qualifying petition, which is passed on to the justices. The justices review these memos, discuss the cases with each other, and decide which cases to consider further. Four out of the nine justices must accept the petition for the case to move forward.

The Supreme Court does not decide about the facts of a case. It also does not create any laws. It only decides whether or not the application of federal law is correct. For example, if a prisoner on death row appeals his case to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court is not being asked to overturn a guilty verdict. They are being asked whether or not the death penalty violates the prisoner’s constitutional rights in this case.

Considerations When Visiting

People waiting in line to watch Supreme court case
If you want to watch an entire hour‑long oral argument, you may need to wait in line early.

If you do want to attend court during your visit to D.C., keep in mind that lines to get into court may form early, and admission to the court is on a first-come, first-serve basis. If you want to watch an entire hour-long oral argument, you will want to be in line at least 30 minutes beforehand.

If you want a smaller taste of the experience, there is a separate line to attend three to five minutes of an argument. This line moves much faster, but on busy days, it may be just as long.

Either way, security for the courtroom is even stricter than building security. You will need to check all electronic devices, as well as your bags and coats, at the first-floor checkroom before entering the courtroom. You can check the court’s website for the cases on that day’s docket and for the details on building security and courtroom etiquette.

The Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument

Sewall-Belmont House in Washington D.C. with trees and lush green
The Sewall-Belmont House

The Sewall-Belmont house is found just across the street from the Supreme Court. It is the home of a very special museum dedicated to one of the most important eras in the history of civil rights. The house was sold to the National Women’s Party, or NWP, in the early 1920s. NWP was an offshoot of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. That organization was focused on legalizing women’s suffrage on the state level. NWP focused on federal law.

Both groups were founded by Alice Paul. Another founder of the NWP was Alva Vanderbilt Belmont. These two women gave the site the name it carries today: The Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument. It operates as a museum and library dedicated to the history of the women’s rights movement, as well as an extensive 19th-century art collection. It is open Wednesdays through Sundays for tours, and offers regular lectures, workshops, and salons.

Use these online resources to help plan your trip.
Visiting the Supreme Court
The Sewall-Belmont House
The SCOTUS blog

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