Normally, the Supreme Court of the United States becomes the center of attention in late June, when it wraps up its year with a cascade of decisions. But now, with the death of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, all of America will ask, as retired judge Bill Blum asks in this piece for The Huffington Post, “What's Next for the Supreme Court?”
We’re in for further politicization of the court nomination process—that’s surely “What’s next,” at least in the short term. But maybe if we’re lucky, the replacement for Scalia, whether nominated by Barack Obama, a Democratic successor or (as Capitol Hill Republicans have made no bones about) one of the current crop of GOP contenders, will feel, as they tour the building, tugged by responsibility to the institution and history, not merely to party, interest group or even ideology.
That’s what I felt, anyway, when I toured America’s “court of last resort” this past November. That guard in this picture I took back then is a reminder of the scary new age in which the justices find themselves these days. (In 1982, Congress gave enhanced powers to the Supreme Court Police at the request of then-Chief Justice Warren Burger, who cited a rise in "terrorist activities, assassination attempts, and street crime"—concerns only heightened, of course, since 9/11.)
Since the nation's founding, of the three branches of the federal government, the judiciary, as epitomized by the Supreme Court, has been the most nomadic and unsettled, in several sites, all eventually deemed inadequate. A more permanent site, with adequate space for the justice’s needs, was championed by Chief Justice (and former President) William Howard Taft in the 1920s. Neither he nor the architect he chose, Cass Gilbert, lived to see its opening in 1935.
Not everyone was enamored of the building, including Associate (later Chief) Justice Harlan Fiske Stone, who called it “almost bombastically pretentious…wholly inappropriate for a quiet group of old boys such as the Supreme Court.” But its style, modeled after ancient Roman temples, is a reminder of civic virtue—and, implicitly, America’s always-tenuous republican experiment. As I ascended its steps, I felt uplifted and suddenly sobered, the way I do upon entering a great cathedral.
During his 1987 confirmation hearings, Robert Bork, when asked why he wanted to serve on the court, answered: “I think it would be an intellectual feast just to be there.” Kent Greenfield, in a 2012 article for The American Prospect, scathingly judged this as “the response of an egghead” that “doomed his nomination.”
But a visitor to the court is every bit justified in seeing the building as “an intellectual feast.” Start with the ground floor, which has the John Marshall Statue, portraits and busts of other justices, an educational film, and exhibits. (An especially good example of the latter is devoted to Charles Evan Hughes, the Chief Justice when the current building opened. His imposing beard and authoritative temperament led an Associate Justice who served with him, Robert Jackson, to exclaim, "he looks like God and talks like God.") Better yet are the 30-minute Courtroom Lectures held upstairs, right where the justices hear cases.