Supreme Court of the United States
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1st St. NE
HOURS: Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; closed federal holidays
The Supreme Court doesn’t exactly exude hospitality. With monumental steps, imposing Corinthian columns, and the stern phrase “Equal Justice Under the Law” etched on its neoclassical facade, it’s formidable.
And the justices seem to agree: “Why is it that we have an elegant, astonishingly beautiful, imposing, impressive structure? It’s to remind us we have an important function and to remind the public, when it sees the building, of the importance and centrality of the law,” Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy told C-SPAN.
But past the checkpoints and lines, the ominous court is visitor-friendly, welcoming spectators and encouraging visitors to explore.
Americans can spend a lifetime never seeing a president or a senator, but the opportunity to watch the most powerful members of the Judicial Branch is guaranteed two days a week for at least two weeks a month, from early October until late April.
The Supreme Court is an appellate court, meaning it considers cases on appeal from federal circuit courts, and in some cases state supreme courts if the case involves constitutional or federal law.
The Supreme Court receives more than 8,000 requests, known as petitions for writ of certiorari, each year. The nine justices—currently one chief justice and eight associate justices—decide which to accept (usually 75 to 80 cases a year), and then they hear them and rule. Only an act of Congress can overturn a Supreme Court decision.
Before its impressive building opened in 1935, the Supreme Court met in various settings, starting with the Merchants Exchange Building in New York City in 1790, moving to Philadelphia and eventually to the U.S. Capitol. The current building was proposed by chief justice and former president William Howard Taft, who felt the court should be contained in an edifice on par with the other two branches of government.
Architect Cass Gilbert, who designed the neo-Gothic Woolworth Building in New York City, was selected to draft the design. Among the Supreme Court building’s notable details are its massive bronze doors with bas reliefs depicting scenes from the development of Western law; the pediment sculpture on the little-visited East Front that includes lawgivers of three great civilizations—Moses, Confucius, and Solon; and two courtroom friezes that depict 18 historic lawmakers, including Hammurabi, Caesar Augustus, Charlemagne, and Muhammad.
Surprisingly, the famous “Equal Justice” phrase found on the building’s architrave, which has become the Court’s de facto motto, was created by architect Gilbert simply “because it fit,” Supreme Court historians say.
Spectators hoping to watch the court in session can line up the day of a case in two lines: one that allows them to stay for three minutes, or another for the entire procedure. Lines begin forming around 8 a.m., earlier for high-profile cases, and hearings last roughly an hour. For information on cases, check out the Supreme Court website or the Washington Post for the daily docket.
The Supreme Court doesn’t have official tours, but visitors can explore much of the building at their leisure. A 30-minute C-SPAN film about the court runs continuously in two theaters, and the exhibit hall contains several important court artifacts, including Chief Justice John Marshall’s original chair and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s robes. Visitors can also wander through the Great Hall and see the courtroom through a cordoned-off open doorway.
Courtroom lectures are offered when court is not in session, usually every hour on the half hour starting at 9:30 a.m. Stop by the information desk to learn more about these opportunities.
© Patricia Nevins Kime from Moon Washington DC, 1st Edition