SCOTUS Closing Front Entrance to Public

Posted in Law and Politics by Mike Sacks on May 3, 2010

Citing security concerns, the Court has stated that as of tomorrow, visitors will enter through a new entrance next to the building’s front steps that until now the public has long scaled to see the Court in action.  Visitors, however, will be able to exit the Court through its front doors.

I have entered and exited the Court via its front door eleven times this term.  While walking down the steps is fun, its emotional impact is minor compared to the thrill of the 9am ascent into the Court.  Since January, I have shared this experience with men and women who have waited for hours in the cold and dark only to forget their chills upon seeing the bronze doors swing open.  Smiling wide, these men and women climb the steps, their heads swiveling from Court to Capitol as their goal grows nearer with every pace.  For those who line up at the Court for each of its public sessions, this process marks–quite literally–a rite of passage from sidewalk to sacred space.  To deny these men and women this dramatic piece of their pilgrimage is quite mistaken.

Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Ginsburg, understands what the American public has lost today.  In a memorandum that serves as a “dissent” from the Court’s decision to close the front door, Breyer states:

I write with regret to note the closing of the Court’s front entrance. The Supreme Court building is currently undergoing extensive construction, and the Court has decided that, after this construction is completed, visitors to the Court–including the parties whose cases we decide, the attorneys who argue those cases, and the members of the public who come to listen and to observe their government in action–will have to enter through a side door. While I recognize the reasons for this change, on balance I do not believe they justify it. I think the change is unfortunate, and I write in the hope that the public will one day in the future be able to enter the Court’s Great Hall after passing under the famous words “Equal Justice Under Law.”

Breyer goes on to explain how this closure is directly at odds with the vision of the Supreme Court’s architect, Cass Gilbert:

Cass Gilbert faced a difficult problem when he was commissioned to design the Court’s present home. The Court was to be built on a small, irregularly-shaped plot of land adjacent to both the Capitol and the Library of Congress, two powerful and prominent architectural competitors. How was Gilbert to create a distinctive, yet fitting, home for the Court in these circumstances?

Gilbert’s solution was to design an entrance that, in the words of architect and lawyer Paul Byard, “emphasiz[ed] the processional progress toward justice reenacted daily in [the Court’s] premises.” Starting at the Court’s western plaza, Gilber’s plan leads visitors along a carefully choreographed, climbing path that ultimately ends at the courtroom itself. The Court’s forty-four marble steps, the James Earle Fraser sculptures Contemplation of Justice and Authority of Law, the Western portico with its eight pairs of columns standing high able the removed wings of the building, the Great Hall–each of theses elements does its part to encourage contemplation of the Court’s central purpose, the administration of justice to all who seek it.

But the significance of the Court’s front entrance extends beyond its design and function. Writers and artists regularly use the steps to represent the ideal that anyone in this country may obtain meaningful justice through application to this Court. And the steps appear in countless photographs commemorating famous arguments or other moments of historical importance. In short, time has proven the success of Gilbert’s vision: To many members of the public, this Court’s main entrance and front steps are not only a means to, but also a metaphor for, access to the Court itself.

This is why, even though visitors will remain able to leave via the front entrance, I find dispiriting the Court’s decision to refuse to permit the public to enter. I certainly recognize the concerns identified in the two security studies that led to this recent decision (which reaffirmed a decision made several years ago). But potential security threats will exist regardless of which entrance we use. And, in making this decision, it is important not to undervalue the symbolic and historical importance of allowing visitors to enter the Court after walking up Gilbert’s famed front steps.

I am currently reading The Nine Old Men, by Drew Pearson.  Written in 1936 and now out of print, the book takes a fittingly cynical stance towards the justices then standing in the way of the New Deal and showing no signs of relenting.  Pearson’s opening chapter describes the dedication of the then-new Supreme Court building.  Here’s the first paragraph:

It was one of the most momentous occasions in the history of the Supreme Court.  The highest dignitaries of the nation were assembled.  They stood bareheaded, despite a light drizzle, and extolled the mightiness of justice and the magnificence of the building whose cornerstone they were about to lay.  They dwelt feelingly on the fact that this new building, this imposing temple of justice, was a symbol of permanence, a constant reminder to the nine justices that they, and they alone, stood as guardians against flexibility in the economic and social life of the nation.

Yet contrary to Pearson’s perspective, the Court did not hearken the end of history.  Pearson could not have predicted at the Court’s 1935 opening that two years later, the justices would step aside and the New Deal would move forward.  Nor could he have predicted that nineteen years later, a new set of justices inhabiting the “imposing temple of justice” would, in fact, impose justice throughout the segregated South.  Even as the building’s outward appearance has stood for rigid continuity, within the Court history and its ever-shifting political winds have bent–and will continue to bend–our popular concepts of justice from right to left and back again.

In the passions of his moment, Pearson found too much meaning in the temporal confluence of a permanent palace and its temporary inhabitants.  Over the years, the Supreme Court building, with all its symbolism, has reflected the aspirations of the people, not of the justices.  Although each of us sees something different as we stand on the Court’s plaza depending on how we define justice, that we seek out justice, however defined, is the universal aspiration that bonds us all.  And in the public’s climb up those steps to enter the Court are we reminded, despite the blinding light of our political passions, of this bond.

Accordingly, I agree with Justice Breyer’s conclusion:

I thus remain hopeful that, sometime in the future, technological advances, a Congressional appropriation, or the dissipation of the current security risks will enable us to restore the Supreme Court’s main entrance as a symbol of dignified openness and meaningful access to equal justice under law.

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