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What It’s Like Inside the Supreme Court

published December 15, 2016

By Author - LawCrossing

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Thanks to television shows like The West Wing, the interior design of the White House has become as familiar to most Americans as their own living rooms. But despite the entertainment industry’s best efforts (remember First Monday? The Court? Didn’t think so), we remain largely in the dark about what’s inside the Supreme Court. Here, from bottom to top, is the answer.

The Basement

The Court's maintenance facilities are staffed by a 32-member crew that includes carpenters, electricians, plumbers, painters, and groundskeepers. When Warren Burger became chief justice in 1969, he complained that, with the varying heights of the justices' chairs, the tops of the seats looked like a jumbled skyline. To correct the problem, Burger authorized the Supreme Court carpenter to build each justice's new chair to uniform specifications in the Court's on-site woodworking shop. Now, even when the justices' opinions don't align, at least their chairs do.

The Court's mailroom handles thousands of pieces of correspondence each year—both official legal documents and personal letters sent to the justices and other Court staff. In October 2001, anthrax was detected in a small area of the court's mailroom, and a filter at the Court's off-site mail facility also tested positive for the substance. All mail addressed to the Court now passes through irradiation machines that leave correspondence "slightly crispy," according to one court staffer. The justices receive all manner of mail—from invitations to speak at public events to scathing attacks on opinions. As former Boy Scouts, Justices Breyer and Kennedy receive hundreds of letters every year from newly minted Eagle Scouts. While justices rarely respond to correspondence personally, each Eagle Scout does receive a reply signed by Breyer. 

The basement also houses a private garage, which allows the justices to avoid using the first floor egresses when they come and go. In January 2002, a court officer discovered a fox lurking in the garage. Despite an extensive search that enlisted two foxhounds and a border terrier, the intruder was never found.
The Ground Floor
The police roll-call room is where the high court's finest gather each morning. The Supreme Court PD, like the Capitol Hill Police, is an independent law enforcement agency, created in 1935 expressly to protect and defend the building and its personnel. 

The clerk’s office receives roughly 7,000 petitions each year (in addition to numerous supporting documents and amicus briefs). Seven full-time case analysts examine the petitions to see that each conforms to the Court's strict rules regarding format and timeliness. For a petition to be heard by the Court, four justices must vote to take on the case for review.
Each justice's clerks read every petition and prepare summarizing memos (often justices read the memos as well as the petitions themselves). The justices vote on petitions during a regular conference, usually within two months of filing. Only about 75 to 90 cases are accepted each year. Once a case is on the Court's docket, the parties submit briefs, and oral arguments are scheduled. Following oral arguments, the justices discuss the case in conference, cast votes, and draft opinions. Rulings on all cases are normally issued by the close of the Court's term at the end of June. 

The press room has workspace for the 18 or so reporters who regularly cover the Court. Since the press is restricted primarily to this office and the public areas, one justice has jokingly called it "the Cage." The room is divided into cubicles used by major national media. Normally comfortable and businesslike, during Bush v. Gore the office was packed and manic. When court officers closed the doors to muffle the noise, New York Times correspondent Linda Greenhouse asked them to reconsider. She was worried that she and her fellow reporters might actually suffocate. 

The cafeteria is patronized by the justices, staff, and the nearly one million tourists who visit the Court each year (the justices normally send assistants to get their food). It offers pizza, salads, sandwiches, wraps, and other fast take-out items, in addition to such sit-down fare as lasagna and eggs made to order. Regulars note that the cafeteria's pay-by-weight system often is a pricier alternative to a sandwich or a slice. 

The hottest item in the gift shop is the Supreme Court gavel pencil, which sells for 75 cents. Two other popular tchotchkes: the Supreme Court pewter thimble ($3.99) and the Constitution silk tie ($24.95). 

Charles Rollins, a former Senate barber, presides over the court barbershop. His Supreme regulars include Justices Thomas, Kennedy, and Souter (who has since retired). The shop is open to the public: a basic cut costs $15 and can take an hour. Be prepared to hear the tale of Rollins's epic battle to save the Senate barbershop from the Contract With America crowd in the mid-1990s. One justice brings a stack of briefs to read while Rollins works. 

Police headquarters is also on this floor, on the north side of the building. Each year, court police memorize photographs of incoming clerks so the new legal eagles can be welcomed by name. 

The First Floor
This level is the heart of the Supreme Court. Just up the famed marble steps and through the main doors on the building's west side is the Great Hall, a cavernous marble-floored corridor with a 44-foot-high ceiling lined with marble busts of all 15 former chief justices. At the east end of the hall is the courtroom, the familiar mahogany and marble chamber where the justices hear oral arguments. The room is dominated by the imposing justices' chairs, over which two sets of columns tower on either side. Chief Justice Rehnquist sits in the middle, flanked by his associates in order of seniority. 

Opposing counsel sit at tables before the bench, the media on red benches along the left wall, and members of the Supreme Court bar in chairs near the front of the room. Red benches on the right are for guests of the justices, and about 200 seats near the back are for the public. The courtroom's acoustics are famously horrendous. A number of attempts have been made to improve the sound quality—from hanging heavy curtains to experimenting with microphone systems—but nothing worked until Burger arranged to have the justices' bench curved. Today, there's an electronic amplification system. There's no Supreme Court stenographer, but proceedings are taped with an audio recorder, and the transcripts are made available to the justices and to the public. Next to each justice's chair, hidden from view by the bench, stands a green-and-white china receptacle. Once used as spittoons, the vessels now serve as trash cans.
Inside the Supreme Court
On mornings when oral arguments are heard, the justices gather in the robing room, where they don their vestments and exchange handshakes. The south side of the small room is lined with nine plain wooden lockers bearing nine brass nameplates, ordered by seniority. When a buzzer sounds, the justices head into the courtroom in groups of three, the chief justice and his most senior colleagues in the center and the two groups of junior justices on either side. 

Eight of the justices also have their chambers on the first floor. Each chamber has three rooms: one for the justice's secretaries and aide, one for clerks, and one for the justice—and a fireplace, a holdover from the days before paper shredders. Justices typically decorates their own chambers upon being named to the Court. Two of the most distinctive are those of Justices O'Connor and Breyer. Arizona native O'Connor did hers with a southwestern motif: Navajo rugs and a picture of the Grand Canyon hang on the walls, and visitors can rest their drinks on cow-skin drums. By contrast, Justice Breyer's space has a professorial vibe: an Oriental rug on a parquet floor surrounded by wood shelves filled with his personal collection of rare books. On one wall, Breyer, known for his predilection for nineteenth-century American oil paintings, has hung a Gilbert Stuart portrait of an unnamed young lady that he borrowed from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, a perk available to all of the Supremes. 

The regular meetings to discuss and vote on cases, held in the justices’ conference room (which is part of the chief justice's chambers), are strictly for Supremes. Rehnquist prides himself on running an efficient, egalitarian meeting. After introducing each case, the chief justice invites each of his colleagues to address the merits of the matter before anyone speaks twice. The Court's most junior member does double duty as doorman, sending and accepting messages. 

The first floor also houses the east and west conference rooms, large meeting spaces used for formal events, photo ops, and reunions of former clerks. The East Conference Room hosts the biennial Judicial Conference of the United States. Some 27 federal judges from around the nation were assembled here for the conference on the morning of September 11. After the terrorist attacks began, the Court building was evacuated and the conference was canceled for the first time in its 79-year history. 

The Second Floor
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the first active Supreme to have her chambers on the second floor. She could have chosen the first-floor chambers vacated by retiring Justice Byron White but opted instead for the suite formerly used by Thurgood Marshall in his retirement. Ginsburg is also the only justice to decorate the hallway outside her chambers; a row of modern art posters, featuring works by Miro, Klimt, and Matisse, greet her visitors. Her colleagues all have space for their clerks on this floor, consisting of a nondescript room that accommodates two clerks (each justice usually employs four clerks at a time, except for the chief justice, who has only three; clerks typically do one-year stints). Justices generally don't visit secondary chambers, though Justice Souter reportedly is known for his unexpected social drop-ins. 

The second floor also features several ceremonial rooms, including the justices’ dining room, an Early American style space overlooking the building's eastern steps. On most days, the justices eat lunch at their desks, but on conference days they dine together here, with catering by the cafeteria. The notoriously bland Justice Souter has a standing order: plain yogurt. 

The Reporter of Decisions Office accommodates a staff of roughly 10. The reporter and his colleagues check all of the citations in Court opinions and publish the final documents in United States Reports, the official bound record of all Supreme Court opinions. When a justice passes away, the reporter of decisions submits the tributes from colleagues that run in U.S. Reports. 

Just down the hall from the justices' dining room is the Library Reading Room, a small space with two reference librarians. Legend has it that Justice Harry Blackmun squirreled away here to compose the Court's 1973 majority opinion in Roe v. Wade. 

The Third Floor
The third floor is the home of the Supreme Court Library. Noted for its hand-carved wood columns, intricate friezes, and 450,000 law books, and original copies of every brief filed at the Court since 1935, the library is staffed by a team of lawyers and librarians. It is considered one of the premier court libraries in the world. Borrowing privileges are normally limited to justices and their clerks.

The Fourth Floor
The fourth floor gym, open to Supreme Court employees only, is outfitted with a modest collection of weights and workout machines, including two treadmills and a NordicTrack (the justices have a weight room all their own). The fourth floor is also where you'll find the Supreme Court basketball court, sometimes called the, um, highest court in the land. The court is full-size but the ceilings are unusually low, which makes three-point shots and Hail-Mary passes difficult (architect Cass Gilbert originally intended the space to handle stacks of overflow books from the library, but it was converted to its present, more physically demanding use in the 1940s).
Byron White is considered the all-time best Supreme hoopster and until his death in 2002 had a personal locker nearby. None of the current nine are regular players, but Justice O'Connor held a one-hour women-only aerobics group three times a week at 8 a.m. on the court before her retirement in 2006. The basketball court is closed when Court is in session; the floor is located directly above the high-ceilinged courtroom, and a ball bouncing on the hardwood can plainly be heard in the hallowed room below.