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Under Your Nose: Justice’s Symbol in Stone

Sonia Sotomayor’s installment on the Supreme Court is not yet certain, but the new justice’s actual seat on the bench is a sure thing.

[IMGCAP(1)]Like many of the high court’s procedures, seat selection falls under a long tradition of seniority. The new justice will take the chair at the far left end of the mahogany bench.

Many believe that the court, steeped in tradition, follows these protocols because for more than a century they were the body’s only constants.

The judicial branch was considered the lowliest of the three branches of government from the time the Supreme Court first convened in the temporary capital, New York, in February 1790. In fact, this coequal branch was not provided a building of its own until 1935.

Following the other branches, the court moved to Philadelphia after only a few months in New York. After a very short stay in Independence Hall and a less than decade-long residence in the Old City Hall, the court moved to Washington in 1800. At first, it found its home in the basement of the Capitol.

The court changed its meeting place a half-dozen times within the Capitol — and even took a couple of traipses to neighborhood taverns because, then-Architect of the Capitol Benjamin Latrobe wrote in a letter, the Capitol’s library became “so inconvenient and cold.— Only when the new Senate and House chambers were added did the court get a step up, in the Old Senate Chamber. It wasn’t until 146 years after it first convened that the high court finally moved into its current home across the street.

In 1929, Chief Justice and former President William Howard Taft persuaded Congress to authorize construction of a permanent “building of dignity and importance— for the court.

Designed by architect Cass Gilbert, the building does project a dignified grandeur. Unfortunately, neither Taft nor Gilbert saw its completion.

There were mixed opinions — typical for the nine-member panel — when the Supreme Court finally moved from its dingy room in the Capitol. Justice Louis Brandeis expressed regret, saying he’d rather the court continued to use the little room off the corridor that connected the House and Senate chambers because “our little courtroom kept us humble.—

Justice Harlan Stone took it a step further, telling an acquaintance as he showed him through the new building with its elegant pink marble pillars and red plush curtains, “We’ll look like nine black cockroaches when we get into that room,— according to reports.

With the building’s completion, the judicial branch finally found its rightful place. The court’s Office of the Curator says the “building, majestic in size and rich in ornamentation, serves as both home to the Court and the manifest symbol of its importance as a coequal, independent branch of government.—

The Supreme Court building today is a commanding block-long structure that stands on land once used by a schoolhouse, a boarding house, the temporary home of the Capitol (after the 1814 fire) and, ironically, an infamous prison that housed spies and political suspects during the Civil War.

The four-story classical Corinthian building was designed to easily blend in with its surroundings.

Marble is the principal material used for both the interior and exterior — 4,700 pieces were used for the outside alone — $3 million worth throughout. Even with this price tag, the overall project came in well under what was appropriated, and $94,000 was returned to the Treasury.

The main west entrance faces the Capitol on First Street Northeast and is an astounding first glimpse of the Supreme Court.

Two 10-foot marble sculptures seem to stand guard. Designed by James Earle Fraser, the seated stone man to the right of the steps, “The Authority of the Law,— holds a tablet backed by a sheathed sword, symbolizing the law and its execution. The other, the “Contemplation of Justice,— is a cloaked female figure holding a statue of Justice.

Just past the duo, 16 colossal columns seem to be holding up “Equal Justice Under Law,— the 60-foot-wide pediment that presides over the front of the grand building and features nine allegorical robed figures — including the artist himself, Robert Aitken.

Aitken, working in an enclosed “shed— while he carved the massive frieze, surprised everyone when the figures were revealed depicting himself; the architect of the building, Gilbert; Sen. Elihu Root (R-N.Y.), who introduced a bill to create Washington’s Fine Art Commission; and chief justices Taft, Charles Evans Hughes and John Marshall.

Not visible during visiting hours, the 6.5-ton bronze entrance doors feature relief panels showing the history of the Western justice system, portraying scenes from ancient Rome to the Magna Carta to the landmark case Marbury v. Madison in 1803. These days, an electronic device rolls each door into pockets in the wall when the building is open for business.

The Office of the Curator says the substantial entranceway signifies the “importance of the proceedings that occur within.— It has been said that when people enter, they feel like they’re walking into a shrine.

The main corridor is known as the Great Hall. Double rows of columns rise on either side, providing niches that house busts of all the former chief justices of the United States. This leads into the court chamber, where there are two very noticeable elements: the 44-foot ceiling and the expansive mahogany bench.

In 1972, the bench was altered from its original straight line to a “winged— shape to aid the court clerk and marshal — but the seniority seating wasn’t touched.

Four 40-foot-long marble friezes frame the upper walls of the courtroom and are designed in beaux-arts style, as are many of the building’s features, which emphasize placing the artistic subjects within the function of the building.

The “East Wall Frieze,— located directly over the bench, features two strong Romanesque figures in the center, Majesty of Law and Power of Government, leaning on a pylon symbolizing the Bill of Rights.

The rest of the building includes the justices’ chambers, which are richly appointed three-room suites, an extensive law library, various meeting spaces, and auxiliary services such as a printing workshop, stores and a cafeteria.

Two of the highlights of the ground floor, which is the home to most of the administrative offices, are the photo opportunities when visitors aim their sights upward on the two mystifying five-story marble spiral staircases that are supported only by overlapping steps and by their extensions into the wall.

A number of historical exhibits, which are changed periodically, and a theater, where a 24-minute film on the Supreme Court is shown, are located on the ground floor as well. Courtroom lectures are held every hour on the half-hour on days that the court is not sitting.

The Supreme Court building is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. When the court is in session, visitors are seated in the gallery on a first-come, first-served basis, but in order to hear an argument visitors likely need to be in line before 7 a.m. (or the night before for a big case).