How The Court Works | Dignity, Formality and Tradition

"I thought they would, well, talk Latin or something." The visitor had heard argument at the Supreme Court for the first time. On another occasion, a high-school student reported "shock" that a black-robed Justice would rock in his high-backed chair and actually laugh out loud.

William H. Rehnquist first observed the Court’s unchanging ritual opening when he was a newly hired law clerk in 1952, and he later described it in one of his books as "a stirring ceremony." No other regularly scheduled occasion guarantees a visitor "a view of so many persons responsible for the functioning of one of the three branches of government."

To its majestic setting and moments of sheer ritual, the Supreme Court brings its distinctive manner of working in public—by listening to one lawyer at a time and asking tough questions. Its atmosphere mingles informality with dramatic tension. In a city of bureaucracy, it keeps the directness of a group of nine. It cherishes its courtesies. But formality, courtesy, and dignity are not empty custom; they are vital to colleagues who are compelled to disagree publicly in print, expressing their deepest convictions, but always respecting the equally deep convictions of their fellow Justices.

Tour guides trained by the Curator’s Office convey this mood when they talk about the Chamber to members of the public. No, there’s no jury; there are no witnesses; the Justices don’t need them because they review a printed record of what happened in some other court.

The guide calls attention to the sculptured marble frieze overhead; to the right, on the south wall, great lawgivers of the pre-Christian era; to the left, those of Christian times. A note of pride enters her voice as she indicates the panel over the main entrance, the one the Justices face: Powers of Evil—Corruption, Deceit—offset by Powers of Good—Security, Charity, Peace, with Justice flanked by Wisdom and Truth.

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