What Happens Inside the U.S. Supreme Court?

FROM A LECTURE SERIES BY PROFESSOR RICHARD KURIN

For those of us outside the legal profession, the judicial branch may be the most opaque branch of the U.S. government—and the least understood. But it is by no means the least important. Here’s why it’s worth your time to come see the Supreme Court in action.

Washington D.C. US Supreme Court building with statue

Cass Gilbert’s “Neoclassical Revival” Design

Cass Gilbert, who designed the U.S. Supreme Court building, looked to the White House and Capitol Building for his inspiration, creating a “neoclassical revival” structure in white Vermont marble. In fact, the marble facade accounted for almost one-third of the cost of the new building.

The center section of the U.S. 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. The central figure is “Liberty Enthroned,” guarded by “Order” on the left and “Authority” on the right. A group of figures on either side represent “Counsel” and “Research.” The face of the figure on the far left—a young man reading a book—was modeled after a young William Howard Taft. The phrase carved beneath the pediment reminds us of the court’s guiding principle: “Equal Justice under Law.”

The East Pediment features three great historical law-givers: 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. Here, the legend beneath the pediment reads: “Justice the Guardian of Liberty.”

The sculptures on the East Pediment are less often noticed by visitors, because 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, the Contemplation of Justice, and to the right, the Authority of Law. These sculptures were created by the American sculptor James Earle Fraser, whose work is also seen at a number of locations around D.C., including his Alexander Hamilton statue outside the Treasury Building and his allegorical statue Aspiration and Literature near the Lincoln Memorial.

The entrance to the court is through two enormous bronze doors weighing six and a half tons each. The doors depict scenes from the history of Western law, including King John of England sealing the Magna Carta, and an image of former Chief Justice John Marshall. Through the doors, we enter the Great Hall. Here, between the columns, you will find busts of each of the former chief justices. The hall leads to the Court Chamber. The room’s wooden furnishings are all mahogany; the columns are Italian marble; and the marble on the floor, walls, and ceiling come from Italy, Spain, and Africa.

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High on the walls are two pairs of friezes. The north and south friezes depict the great lawyers of history. Moses, Solon, and Confucius are here again, along with Hammurabi, Muhammad, and Charlemagne, and Chief Justice John Marshall, Napoleon, and more. The east frieze contains allegorical figures again, along with an American Bald Eagle, and a pylon carved with Roman numerals one through 10, representing the 10 amendments of the Bill of Rights. Finally, the west frieze depicts an allegory of good versus evil. “Justice” carries a sword and looks to the viewer’s right, while the winged figure of “Divine Inspiration” holds the scales of justice. On the left are the “Powers of Good” (Virtue, Charity, Peace, Harmony, and Security). On the right are the “Powers of Evil” (Crime, Corruption, Slander, Deception, and Despotism).

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.

The third floor contains the Supreme Court library containing 600,000 print volumes, 200,000 microforms, and numerous electronic sources covering U.S. 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 court. But it is also used by members of Congress, Department of Justice attorneys, and visiting scholars. The library’s beautiful main reading room is paneled in hand-carved oak.

Watching the Supreme Court in Action

U.S. Supreme Court Washington D.C. courtroom

Of course, the highlight of any visit to the Supreme Court is watching the court in action. But before you watch the court in action, you need to understand what leads up to those momentous occasions in the courtroom.

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, typically in May and June. About 80 cases are heard and decided each term. That’s 80 cases out of about 8,000 or more petitions that the court typically receives every year.

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If you’ve seen a lot of courtroom dramas on television, or been in a courtroom for any reason, oral arguments at the Supreme Court will seem a bit different. Remember, these are appeals cases. Therefore, there is no jury. There are no witnesses. There are only the arguments presented by the petitioner and the respondent, and the justices’ questions.

The session begins when the Marshal of the Supreme Court enters. He bangs his gavel, everyone in the courtroom rises to their feet, and he announces the justices’ arrival, saying: “The Honorable, the Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court!”

After the marshal’s announcement, the justices enter through three doorways behind the bench—the chief justice and two senior associate justices enter through the middle doorway, and three associate justices enter through each of the side doorways, for a total of nine. The justices take their places according to their seniority. The chief justice sits in the center seat. The longest-serving associate justice sits at the chief’s right hand, the second-longest at his left, the third takes the next seat to his right, and so on down the dais.

The clerk and the marshal take their places on the left and right ends of the bench. The clerk’s job is to provide the justices with documents and other materials as needed. The marshal’s job is to maintain order and decorum and to time the attorneys’ arguments. The marshal also has several aides—usually high school interns—who act as messengers and “go-fers,” carrying messages between the justices and their staff members, or fetching necessities for the justices, like water, pens, cough drops, and so on.

The chairs on the right of the courtroom are occupied by the justices’ clerks. These clerks are typically recent law school graduates who have experienced clerking in other federal courts. Their job is to listen to the arguments and anticipate any research the justice might need them to do after the argument. The benches to the right are the place for guests of the justices. Retired justices and other court officers are seated in the front row. Finally, to the left of the courtroom you’ll see members of the Supreme Court press corps, ready to report on the argument.

If the court has any administrative business or announcements on the schedule that day, that comes first. (If you are lucky during your visit, you’ll get to see the admission ceremony for new members of the Supreme Court bar.)

Then the court proceeds to that day’s oral arguments. First, the petitioning attorney takes his place at the lectern in front of the chief justice and presents the argument. Justices may interrupt this presentation with questions, or they may ask questions at the end. When the petitioning attorney is finished, the responding attorney gets a turn. Each side has a strict limit of 30 minutes to present their argument, including the justices’ interruptions.

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And that’s that. The rest of the process takes place behind the scenes, in conference. Justices meet privately to discuss the case and argue for their preferred ruling, and at the end of discussion a preliminary vote is taken. Next, one or more justices will write an opinion. These opinions circulate among the justices for review and revision, and every so often a justice will change his or her mind based on those written opinions. In fact, justices may change their minds at any point until the opinion is finally handed down. At that point, the opinion signed by five or more justices is the official ruling on the case.

Visiting the Supreme Court Building

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

If you visit the court in the early summer, you may witness the handing down of opinions, rather than oral arguments. Opinions are usually issued on a Tuesday or Wednesday morning. The justice who wrote the opinion will announce the decision in the case and read the opinion. This is an opportunity to witness the different speaking and writing styles of the justices.

Now, for some of you, this process might sound unbearably tedious. For others, it may be absolutely fascinating. If you’re in the latter group, you’re in pretty good company. The legal and political community in D.C. treats the Supreme Court justices like rock stars, and they pack the courtroom to the gills when decisions are being handed down, especially for widely publicized or controversial cases.

You need to keep this in mind if you do want to attend court during your visit to D.C., because lines to get into court may form very 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’ll want to be in line at least 30 minutes beforehand.

If you just want a little taste of the experience, there is a separate line to attend 3 to 5 minutes of an argument; this line moves much faster, of course, but on busy days it may be just as long. Either way, security for the courtroom is even more strict than building security, and 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.

This article is from the series The Great Tours: Washington, D.C., taught by Professor Richard Kurin, Ph.D.