What do Carnegie Hall and the U.S. Supreme Court have in common? The way to get to both places is to practice, practice, practice. For the former you practice an instrument, but for the latter you practice the law.
I’ve practiced law for over thirty years, and this practice allowed me inside the highest court of the land this week. And I wasn’t there just as a visitor. I was admitted to the United States Supreme Court Bar Monday.
Surprisingly, becoming a member of the United States Supreme Court Bar has a requirement even Supreme Court justices don’t have to meet. What’s that? Well, you actually have to be an attorney. Supreme Court justices must be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, but they don’t have to be attorneys. Currently, all sitting justices are attorneys, and it would be a miracle for a non-attorney to be appointed in this day and age.
Why do attorneys want to be admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court Bar? On a practical note, you cannot appear for argument before the high court without such admission. But, hey, let’s get real. Most members of the Supreme Court Bar will never conduct an oral argument in the there. But having the impressive framed certificate on your I Love Me Wall at work tells the world that you COULD.
There are perks to being a member of this bar. First, members have preferred admission to court proceedings. Seating in the courtroom is extremely limited, and the public has to stand in line for first come, first seated seats. The Supreme Court Bar has its own seating section for which the lines are much shorter. And this seating is pretty sweet–in front of the bronze railing (the “bar” of passing the bar reference) and directly behind those attorneys conducting oral argument. These wooden chairs aren’t comfy, but their desirability is for their location.
Another perk for Supreme Court Bar member is access to the fancy Supreme Court library on the building’s third floor. You don’t need a library card to get in, but I was given a “BAR MEMBER” tag by the Clerk’s office to allow my entrance. A voluminous amount of law volumes are kept in the library. Energy conservation is a priority, and various rows of bookcases have a light switch on the bookcase’s end to flip on when one wants to go down that row.
Sadly, Supreme Court Bar members are not given access to the gym on the fifth floor of the building. In the original plans this area was designated for storage, but as the years passed personal fitness took priority. The Supreme Court gym includes a basketball court dubbed the “highest court in the land.” When the justices aren’t playing hardball with appellate attorneys in the courtroom, they can dribble a ball on the basketball court in the same building to let off steam.
The Supreme Court’s operation has been affected by post-9/11 security concerns. The photogenic steps rising to the front doors of the building are available for taking photographs, but you can’t get inside that way. Entrance is now only through the ground level plaza doors which funnel visitors through security screening. And, in order for me to enter the courtroom, I had to go through security a second time outside the courtroom doors.
Camera buffs will be sorely disappointed at the lack of photo ops. Take as many shots as you want outside the building and in the entry hall, but NO RECORDING DEVICES (audio or visual) are allowed inside the courtroom. Just in case you missed that directive, don’t worry; you’ll be told repeatedly that cameras and cell phones are forbidden.
The Supreme Court Justices hear oral arguments in the courtroom and announce their decisions there as well. The majority opinion’s author reads it aloud, but, as was noted above, the pronouncement is not recorded by visitors or media in the courtroom. Prior to my admission ceremony, Justice Elena Kagan read the court’s unanimous decision in Thacker v. TVA. So, for a few brief moments, only those in attendance in the courtroom knew what has been decided. Once court is adjourned, the rest of the world gets clued in.
Although the Supreme Court has been around for a long time, its current digs have not. After being in several locations in various cities (New York and Philadelphia in addition to D.C.), the high court found its permanent home at 1 First Street. Its residence there, one block east of the U.S. Capitol, got off to an exemplary start.The building’s construction budget was almost ten million dollars, but the project came in $94,000 UNDER budget. Talk about judicial economy!
The breathtaking marble structure does not look like a budget job. It truly inspires awe and reverence for the judiciary. The courtroom is not big from a seating perspective. But its ceilings are extremely high, and 24 columns made from Italian marble add to the grandeur.
Like the Supreme Court Bar, the Supreme Court Justices have special seating. They sit in big chairs on a raised platform at the front of the courtroom behind a bench made of Honduran mahogany. (So much for buying American…). Seating is assigned based on seniority. The Chief Justice sits in the big chair in the middle; the next senior justice (in terms of length of service) sits to his right, and the second next senior justice sits to his left. Seating by seniority continues on a right then left basis. Hopefully, the justices know where they supposed to sit, but for the rest of us, here’s the seating chart. From left to right it’s Gorsuch, Sotomayer, Breyer, Thomas, Roberts, Ginsburg, Alito, Kagan, and Kavanaugh.
To keep things moving in an orderly fashion, the justices are assisted by a clerk of a court and a marshal. The day of my admission, the clerk was nattily clad in a morning coat, and the marshal (a female) wore a broad tie and coat. Numerous security personnel dressed in dark suits were peppered about the courtroom keeping a wary eye on those seated before them.
The proceedings are punctual. At the stroke of ten, a buzzer sounded, and the curtains parted to reveal the entrance of seven justices. To justify their existence, the security detail solemnly motioned those in the courtroom to stand as the justices entered. But wait! Aren’t there NINE Supreme Court justices? Sure are. Two justices were playing hooky. It was Monday morning, so maybe they had been living it up a bit too much over the weekend.
In literally ten minutes’ time, the justices announced a decision and swore in three groups of attorneys to the Supreme Court Bar. Then they rose, the security personnel made hand gestures to direct those in the courtroom to rise, and the justices exited. Clarence Thomas is not only a legal scholar, but he is also a gentleman. He gallantly aided RGB in stepping down off the bench and out of sight. The new bar members were then perfunctorily ushered out of the courtroom.
What’s the hurry? Well, the justices are very busy at this time of the year. Oral arguments have ended, and less than half of the opinions for this term have been released. Around 70 decisions are rendered each term. Those 70 cases are the favored few chosen to be heard. Of the 7,000 to 8,000 appeals made to the U.S. Supreme Court each year, only about 1% are actually taken up by the high court.
Following the admissions ceremony, my group of new bar member returned to the East Conference room where we had previously assembled for breakfast. A court photographer was summoned. (Yes, HE gets to have a camera in areas forbidden to the rest of us.) Then, who to our wondering eyes should appear? No, not Santa. RBG!!! She came to personally congratulate us on our admittance and joined our group for an official photo.
Justice Ginsburg wittily told us that since we had now been admitted to the Supreme Court Bar, she hoped we’d “come for the show.” Professionally, arguing before the Supreme Court sounds appealing. Who wouldn’t want to list arguing before the Supremes on her resume? But personally I would not wish the lengthy, expensive, and emotionally draining years long appellate process on any client of mine. I am satisfied to have simply had my ten minutes in the courtroom of the U.S. Supreme Court a few feet away from the Justices where I merely had to raise my right hand, smile, and say “I do.”
JUST WONDER-ing: How many of the U.S. Supreme Court Justices can you name? (Hint: All of their last names appear in the post above.) Can you name a famous Supreme Court decision? What’s something new you learned about the Supreme Court from reading this post?
7 thoughts on “Inside Edition: U.S. Supreme Court”
Alice, Congratulations on your momentous achievement! I am so proud of you and honored to know you!
Thanks, Marilyn. It was a once in a lifetime event to be admitted to the Supreme Court. I appreciate the congrats from such a talented multi-published author whom I am proud to call my friend!
Very interesting information. I didn’t realize that they don’t have to be attorneys. When I lived in that area, going there was an accessible tourist attraction for our houseguests. How sad that security concerns are necessary now! Congratulations!
Amen, my friend. Well done. And thanks for your work to help those in the greatest need of love & family.
Thanks, for reading, Jack. Appreciate your kind words. And thank you for the difference you make in the lives of those around you.
Alice, I am so glad you shared your thoughts and memories regarding our day at the Supreme Court. It was a great day! I was very honored to be with you and the other UDSL alumni for the entire event: from the breakfast, to the ceremony, to the tour of the library. Reflecting on the national impact of the School of Law, it was impressive that our alumni represented 11 states: Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia. Thanks for joining the fun and I hope you stay in touch!
Colleen: Thanks for reading. If not for your organizational efforts, I would not have been able to have this wonderful experience to write about. I appreciate all you did to make the event occur. I learned so much and was honored to be admitted with fellow UDSL alums.