Close Encounters with the Supreme Court

A couple weeks ago, I scored an extra ticket to see Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas speak at the University of Minnesota Law School.  I jumped at the chance, because it’s rare to actually encounter a SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) justice in person, or for that matter, in the media.  I had read Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Nine a couple months prior to Justice Thomas’s visit, which is about the evolution of the “Rehnquist Court” to the “Roberts Court,” although along the way Toobin makes a convincing argument that in fact it was the “O’Connor Court” for most intents and purposes.

When I was younger – maybe 15? – I visited the Supreme Court building with my dad.  It’s beautiful and majestic, one of those Washington edifices that sings of power and might.  I don’t remember many of the specifics of being there, except for the general awe of the place.

Of the three major branches of government, the judicial branch is the most mysterious, at least in terms of the minds and personalities of its occupants.  After all, the President essentially gets carte blanche for picking a new SCOTUS justice, as long as s/he isn’t a total wackjob or sycophant (hello, Harriet Myers!).  Then you get the job for life!  What Toobin’s book, and Thomas’s visit, revealed are the relationships and backgrounds of the men and women who occupy the Supreme Court, and I learned delicious details about the various justices.

A few favorite tidbits:  Sandra Day O’Connor made her clerks go to exercise class with her every day and gave them little Supreme Grandbabies outfits when they had children.  Clarence Thomas likes NASCAR and travels around during his off-season with his wife in their RV.  David Souter is a total Luddite and has been subject to some angry efforts to seize his New Hampshire farm in revenge for his ruling in an eminent domain case.  Anthony Kennedy is kind of a pompous blowhard (from what I read, anyway).  Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia are longtime friends and celebrate New Year’s each year with each other’s families.

The thing is, members of Congress make themselves widely available, because they need and crave public attention.  The President must do this as well.  I suppose Cabinet members (the more obscure ones, anyway, like Labor and Energy) are akin to SCOTUS justices, but with shorter shelf lives.  They don’t have to court public opinion, and sometimes prefer not to.  When Thomas spoke at the UofM, he responded to a question about the transition to being a Supreme Court Justice.  He replied, “Well, first they beat the hell out of you.”

I was too young to appreciate the controversy around his confirmation hearings, although I’ve gathered a bit since then.  I was pleasantly surprised, then, to hear him speak in person.  According to Toobin’s characterization, Thomas is standoffish to the press, reticent in court (he rarely asks questions during oral arguments), idiosyncratic in his uber-originalist interpretation of the Constitution, and not exactly a fun-seeming dude.  But he was funny and self-deprecating when I saw him, and I liked him more than I expected to.  The questions about case law went over my head, and no one really delved into his philosophical perspectives on the Constitution, etc., so I suppose we avoided serious controversy in the lecture I saw.  He also has a rather charming voice, I thought.  Pity he doesn’t use it more.  I’m sure I would have many disagreements with him, but he at least seemed willing to listen and absorb the questions from his visit to the law school.  It makes me wonder what the other Justices are really like, who we only get to know during their confirmation hearings and through reports of the arguments, as they aren’t taped or broadcast in any way.

The New York Times had an opinion/art piece last Friday from Maira Kalman about her visit to the Supreme Court and her time spent there with Justice Ginsburg.  I thought it was lovely and funny, and it showcases the indomitable lone woman on the Court.  I imagine that Obama will have the chance to name a couple of Justices while he’s President, and I hope he chooses a woman to join or replace RBG.  As a piece I read last week noted, if the Supreme Court were made up of eight women and one man, wouldn’t we find that to subvert the natural order of things?  I would think that marching towards at least a third of the court would be a reasonable goal, and surely there are capable women to serve.

I hope to go back to the Supreme Court the next time I’m in DC, since I would have a different appreciation for the place and the people.  Hopefully it won’t be the upcoming site of a showdown between Norm Coleman and Al Franken!

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2 responses to “Close Encounters with the Supreme Court

  1. Maybe next time we see a Supreme Court justice we can get our picture taken with him/her!

  2. Interesting! Thanks. You have a more open mind than I do…

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