One First St. NE in Washington, D.C. is the location of a former prison for Confederate soldiers. Also incarcerated there were Mary Surratt, until becoming the first woman executed by the United States; and Dr. Samuel Mudd, sentenced to life imprisonment. Both were arrested following President Lincoln’s assassination.
Since Oct. 7, 1935, 1 First St. has also been the address of the most powerful institution in the history of the world, the United States Supreme Court. Previously, the court had lacked a permanent location. Initially, in 1790, it convened in New York City, then the nation’s capital. Then it spent time in Philadelphia before coming to Washington, where it met in private homes, taverns, and then in the Capitol basement.
The building itself conveys that this court is different. Marble steps lead to an exterior with eight 30-foot-high marble columns. Inside, the Supreme Chamber is gold-trimmed surrounded by 24 marble columns. When built, it set a world record for its marble content, and some derisively characterized it as “the marble palace.”
Justices going about their business are as distinctive as their building. They are independent in every sense of the word: independent of the people, of the legislature, of every power on Earth. Once appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, like all federal judges, they “hold their offices during good behavior,” meaning until they resign, retire, are impeached and convicted, or die.
America’s Supreme Court is so steeped in tradition that it is frequently referred to as “the first Court still sitting.” Justices wear black robes, a tradition instituted by Chief Justice John Marshall in 1835 specifically to cultivate an image of predominance. Also cultivated is aloofness from political partisanship, which, except for the free-spoken late Justice Ginsburg, is at least ostensibly practiced.
Court sessions have always been opened at 10 a.m. sharp by a marshal chanting “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.”
Visitors may not take photographs while the court is in session, nor may they expose tattooed skin, wear a headdress or extend their arms into neighboring seats. TV is not allowed. In 2007, Justice Kennedy justified its exclusion by saying, “We teach, by having no cameras, that we are different.”
Unless it overturns its own decisions — it has done this 236 times — rulings are final. That contrasts with some countries where there is still room for negotiation with the legislature following their highest court’s “final” decision.
You may have noticed that Amy Coney Barrett recently became the 103rd Associate Justice. There she joined seven associate justices and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. Initially there were six justices, then it changed to five, then six, then seven, nine, 10, seven, then back to nine, where it has remained since 1869.
Roberts, the highest-ranking officer of the federal judiciary, is only the 17th to hold that title since 1790, a stark testament to the stability and continuity of the court. By tradition rather than mandate, the president appoints the chief justice.
The nine justices receive approximately 7,500 appeals each year. They hear and decide about 80. Cases vary, from grave petitions from condemned prisoners, to refereeing disputes resulting in the selection of a president.
Above the columned entrance to the building are the words “equal justice under law.” But many see the present court as favoring the rich. In “Supreme Inequality” author Adam Cohen says, “In the overwhelming majority of its cases, the Court has been a haven of refuge not for the helpless and weak, but for members of society who are doing exceptionally well on their own.”
In March 2020, former Judge James Dannenberg addressed his resignation from the Supreme Court’s bar to Chief Justice Roberts, saying, “The only constitutional freedoms ultimately recognized may soon be limited to those useful to wealthy, Republican, White, straight, Christian, and armed males — and the corporations they control.”
From the long view, though, the scales may balance. The court has also invalidated laws requiring separate but equal education; legalized interracial marriage and, later, same-sex marriage; legalized abortion; required that criminal defendants be advised of their rights; and have a right to an attorney.
Forgive yourself if you don’t know the members of the present court. In 2016 a survey found that one in 10 respondents thought Judge Judy was one of the justices.
Anyway, here you are: Chief Justice John Roberts (appointed by Bush, the younger); Clarence Thomas (by Bush, the elder); Stephen Breyer (by Clinton); Samuel Alito (by Bush, the younger); Sonia Sotomayor (by Obama); Elena Kagan (by Obama); Neil Gorsuch (by Trump); Brett Kavanaugh (by Trump); Amy Coney Barrett (by Trump).
Michael Smith is a Southern Pines resident.