My Visit to the United States Supreme Court

This post is part of an archived series of blogs called The LeVine Line, written by former Ambassador Suzan G. LeVine during her time at U.S. Embassy Bern.

22 October 2014

“It is emphatically the province and duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is.”    – Chief Justice John Marshall in Marbury v. Madison in 1803.

The US is a country that protects the rule of law, upholds the right for the minority view and enables every citizen to have a voice in our system.  One construct that contributes to that fact is our system of government with three branches of government.  These three branches provide checks and balances to one another and include:

  • The Legislative Branch (Congress)
  • The Executive Branch (President & the Cabinets)
  • And the Judicial Branch (Courts)

In this blog, I want to share with you a recent experience with the Judicial Branch.

A couple of months ago, I had the distinct honor of meeting one of the nine Supreme Court Justices – Justice Sonia Sotomayor – when she spent a little bit of time in Zürich.  She invited me to visit her during my next visit to Washington DC.  As one who takes people up on their exciting offers, I took her up on her offer and, on October 8th, had an incredible day at the Supreme Court.

I attended oral arguments in the morning, toured mid-day, and then had the very special opportunity to sit down with her in her chambers for coffee and cookies.

There are volumes written about the Supreme Court that I encourage you to check out.  Plus – the Court’s website itself is very useful.  Here’s the link.

To avoid redundancy, therefore, I thought I’d share my personal take on the experience:

  • How might you visit and experience the Supreme Court
  • My observations of the experience
  • My coffee sitdown w/Justice Sotomayor – including the answers to questions that people sent me in advance via social media
  • Some pictures I took

Visiting the Court – there are three ways of visiting:

Attending the arguments: The schedule for arguments and seeing the court is here .  There is public seating so that individuals who want to attend can line up in advance to do so.  Note – for some of the more notable cases, people will line up far in advance.  If you want to just have a brief view of the court in action – there’s also a “3 minute” line – where you get to watch for 3 minutes from the back of the room and rotate through quickly.

Walking in and doing a self-guided tour without seeing the oral arguments: The court’s visitor hours are from 9am to 4:30pm.  This part of the website  provides all of the core information.  Anyone can walk through on a visit, see the exhibits, attend the lectures, and see the short film.  There’s also a nice little cafeteria and gift shop.

Scheduling a more in-depth visit: There is a tour and briefing program through which a group can request a more extensive tour.  Simply get a briefing request form from the curator’s office (email and submit that request brief back to visitor services.

My observations: Again – there is much written on the court – so I’ll share what surprised, delighted and/or enlightened me.  Please know – this comes from someone who is not a lawyer and who is not steeped in the traditions and history of the Supreme Court.  This is from a regular citizen observing the action of the court for the first time.

From the arguments: 

  • About the cases: The two cases were fascinating.  One was about whether or not a company should be required to compensate employees who, after they check out, wait in line for a security check that is designed to keep them from stealing.  The other was about what to do if you find out that, during voir dire (this is jury selection when they ask questions to make sure the jurors can be fair), a juror was not telling the truth.  The Justices will determine their verdict at some point between now and June – but no one knows exactly when.
  • Etiquette: I was stunned by how the attorneys interrupted the Justices and how the Justices interrupted the attorneys.  On the one hand, it seemed disrespectful – but on the other hand – it really did live up to the term “arguments” and lent itself to a lively debate.
  • Hypos: Throughout the arguments, the Justices posed “hypos” (Justice Kagan used this term to refer to hypotheticals).  I had expected a deep use of precedent, not hypotheticals.  At times, the debate would go deep on the hypotheticals and move away from the case at hand – but then gracefully circle back to the relevance of the case at hand.
  • Posture: The chairs in which they sit sure do lean back!  It was fascinating to watch the choreography/posture of each Justice through their chair rocking.  Some reclined their chairs almost to what a lie flat bed would be on a plane.  Others were upright and barely moving.  I later learned that these chairs, while they can be tweaked, are standardized across the Justices and maintained by the in-house carpenters.
  • All in: Both before and after the case, all of the Justices are involved, whether or not they ask questions during the arguments.
  • Women power: I was proud of how vocal the women Justices (Justices Kagan, Sotomayor, and Ginsburg) were – despite being in the minority.
  • Speed research: If a Justice needs reference material, they slip a note to their assistants, it goes to the library, and the request is taken care of within minutes.  It’s quite impressive!
  • Tech: No computers or cell phones or devices are allowed in the courtroom.

From the tour:  The architect, Cass Gilbert, sourced the marble and wood throughout the building from across the United States – all except the court itself – where the materials came from international sources (ie – Italy, Algeria, etc…)  It is said that this was so that the court would know no bias from one state vs. another.

Since the start of our nation, there have been 44 Presidents, but only 17 Chief Justices.

Coffee sitdown w/Justice Sotomayor:  Her chambers were warm, welcoming, and thoughtfully accented – just like her.  Here’s what else I learned/noticed:

Justice Sotomayor is the only Justice who decorates her office for Halloween – and families from across the court look forward to the decorations she puts up at wintertime – especially the stuffed animals that make noise.

The shelves, counters, and walls were brimming with Sesame Street stuffed animals, Nancy Drew books and sports paraphernalia.  She talks about her love of Nancy Drew in her autobiography (that I highly recommend).

Answers to a couple of the questions: I asked folks to send me proposed questions for the Justice. Here are a couple of her answers:

Most important case on which you’ve worked? Citizens United.  She was sworn in right before it happened and it was the first case on which she worked in the new job.

Something surprising that happens in your chambers? Decorations and fun – she has a very lively, friendly, and fun office space.