In law school, you spend three years trying to figure out what the law is, and what it means, by studying decisions from the Supreme Court. The “Supremes” took on almost mythical proportions – an all-knowing body dispensing “equal justice under law.”
Last month, I finally had the opportunity to visit the Supreme Court. It was everything that I was expecting – and more.
Our highest court of the land is housed in a majestic building of a classical Corinthian architectural style. As I walked up the steps, the importance of what takes place within the walls of the building, took on nearly reverential importance. On either side of the front stairway are figures, one male, and one female. The male figure represents the Guardian or Authority of Law, while the female figure represents the Contemplation of Justice.
Entering the front doors, you pass through 16 marble columns, above which is inscribed “Equal Justice Under the Law.” Without sounding trite or flippant, that phrase embodies the reason that I first became interested in the law. It was an emotional moment for me; the culmination of all things that I believe in — what is fundamentally right about our systems of checks and balances, and how important our system of jurisprudence is to our existence as a nation. (Just writing about how I felt about being there makes me get choked up again.)
Once inside the building, you enter the grand corridor that leads to the Courtroom. Along the corridor are busts of all the former Chief Justices of the court. I wandered along looking at them, trying to see how many names I could recall.
At the end of the corridor is the Court Chamber. It’s a room 82 by 901 feet, flanked by 24 marble columns, the focal point of which is a raised Bench behind which the Justices sit when Court is in session. Looking in at this room is seemed so much smaller than it had been in my mind.
On the lower floor are portraits of the justices, some scale models of the Court, and a variety of historical exhibits. The floors of the Court are connected by an impressive marble staircase, which can be viewed from locations on both the main and lower floors.
Court was not in session the day of my visit, and I am looking forward to a return visit to hear oral argument.
All oral arguments are open to the public, although seating is limited. Unless you are party to the argument, or a member of the Supreme Court Bar, seating is available on a first-come, first-served, basis. There are two visiting options: attending the entire argument or attending for a portion of the argument (three minutes). Separate lines queue up on the days of oral argument.
The Supreme Court is located at One First Street N.E., across from the US Capitol Building and the Library of Congress. It can be reached by subway (Blue and Orange Line, Capitol South stop, and Red Line, Union Station stop).
The building is open 9 am – 4:30 pm, Monday through Friday, and is closed Saturdays, Sundays, and federal holidays. You can obtain a list of the oral argument schedules at the Supreme Court’s website, or by calling the court at (202) 479-3211. Public lectures about the Court are offered in the Courtroom on the hour and half hour, 9:30 am – 3:30 pm on days that the Court is not in session.
Security measures are in effect at the Supreme Court, and all visitors must go through a security checkpoint. Weapons and other dangerous, or illegal, items are obviously not permitted. When the Court is in session, other prohibited items are: cameras, radios, pagers, tape players, cell phones, tape recorders, electronic equipment, hats, overcoats, magazines, books, briefcases and luggage. Sunglasses, identification tags (other than military), display buttons, and inappropriate clothing may not be worn in the Courtroom.
I’m glad that I was finally able to visit the Supreme Court. It was the right time, and in the right circumstances, to be reminded that, no matter the warts, there is plenty that is right and good and just about our legal system.
Photo credit: Jon Rochetti