Washington DC – The Supreme Court And The Old Senate Chamber

Of the United States has occupied the old Senate Chamber, north of the Rotunda, since December, 1860. Previous to that time it held its sessions in what is now the Law Library, in the basement story of the Capitol. From the second Monday in October until the first week in May in each year, with short intermissions, the court sits to hear cases on appeal, and to decide constitutional questions. The court consists of a Chief Justice, with a salary of $10,500 per year, and eight Associate Justices with salaries of $10,000. The justices are appointed by the President, and ” hold their offices during good behavior.” The court officials include a clerk and deputy clerk, a marshal, and a reporter. During a portion of the year the justices act as circuit justices in the nine judicial circuits of the United States, each justice being assigned to a particular circuit, in which he receives the assistance of the specially appointed circuit and district justices. The Federal courts have jurisdiction of all constitutional questions, and of all offences against the laws of the United States not within the jurisdiction of the state courts.

The chamber of the Supreme Court was the first portion of the Capitol that was finished, and in 1800 it was occupied by the Senate. It was reconstructed by Latrobe after the British invasion, and until the winter of 1859, when the Senators left the familiar, classic chamber for their new hall, ” all gold and buff,” it was the place where some of the most important contests in the history of American legislation occurred. The chamber is semi-circular in form, and of pure Grecian design. The ceiling is part of a low dome, the greatest elevation being forty-five feet. The greatest width of the floor is seventy-five feet. Ionic columns of Potomac marble, with white marble capitals, form a screen at the back of the long judicial bench, and around the walls are marble pilasters, and marble busts of deceased Chief Justices. There is a small gallery over the bench, with windows through which the daylight streams. The Justices sit with their backs to a large crimson curtain, and in front of them is a curtained bar with a railing. In the central area are mahogany chairs and tables for the use of lawyers and others having business with the honorable court. Outside of the area are rows of comfort-able seats, cushioned in red velvet, for spectators. The chamber is a very beautiful example of classical symmetry.

Promptly at noon of each day that the court is in session the crier requests all persons in the chamber to rise, and then announces in measured, solemn tone, The Honorable Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States.” Nine dignified gentlemen, attired in long silken robes, march in from the “withdrawing-room,” and take their places upon the bench with the Chief Justice in the centre. They bow all together very courteously to the members of the bar, who return the polite salutation, and then seat themselves in their wide, comfortable chairs. The crier then opens the session in the usual form: ” Oyes ! Oyes ! Oyes ! All persons having business with the honorable the Supreme Court of the United States are admonished to draw near and give their attention, as the court is now sitting. God save the United States and this honorable court.”

Usually the decisions of the court are read by one of the justices at the beginning of the day’s session. Until four o’clock in the after-noon the business continues without intermission. The chamber is free from disturbing noise. Cases are argued by the lawyers in a low, conversational tone, save when some legal luminary from the back-woods, sent to Washington by admiring clients, tries to make an impression on the court by means of artful tricks and mannerisms successful with a jury, and declaims at the top of his voice, strides back and forth, and sets out the merits of his cause with emotional and gymnastic effect. But usually the counsel who appear before this high tribunal are gentlemen of skill and discrimination, who know that solid arguments, stated quietly and easily, are all that is necessary here. The thick carpet on the floor entirely prevents the sound of footfalls as people come and go, and a high screen hides the entrance door from the view of the bench and the bar. Gray-haired colored attendants guard the door, and inform visitors in a whisper where to sit. And so all the afternoon the legal stream flows along as placidly as the waters of the Potomac. The chamber gives you a drowsy feeling. You listen to the lawyers with their endless tongues,” and in following the droning arguments soon feel so inclined to sleep that you wonder how the honorable justices manage to keep their eyes open during the four hours of the sitting. Indeed, members of the court have said that the room was so full of repose” that they often had to struggle to keep from sleeping while a dull argument was going on.

Some of the justices sit very quiet and appear to pay a great deal of attention to the lawyers. Others are nervous and uneasy, and twist about in their chairs constantly. One justice has the habit of getting up and standing behind his chair to rest himself. They turn over the pages of the briefs, consult books brought to them by attendants, and now and then put pertinent questions to the counsel. Sometimes a justice, by a few keen remarks, will show the matter under consideration in such a clear light, that the lawyer who is trying to muddle it will become quite embarrassed, and abruptly close his argument. The justices are complaisant in manner, and there is no stiffness, no assumption of superiority, often seen in very ordinary tribunals. They address the lawyers pleasantly, and are patient in hearing even the most tiresome discussion. The two senior justices sit at the right and left of the Chief Justice, and the others are disposed on the bench in the order of their appointment. In their consultation-room the same order is observed at the table around which they sit.

The black silk robes worn by the justices are nearly like those used by clergymen of the Episcopal church. They reach to the feet, and have capacious sleeves. Before entering the court chamber the justices are dressed in their ” sheeny gowns,” in the robing-room, by colored attendants. In the first part of the century it was customary for the members of the court to wear wigs, and to cover their nether limbs with small-clothes. Lawyers were expected to appear in court in full suits of black, with ruffled shirts, small-clothes, silk hose, and low shoes with silver buckles. It is the court custom now for lawyers to wear black and a frock coat, but occasionally a ” business suit ” will be seen.

There was a great deal of formal ceremony in the court some years ago, most of it, doubtless, taken from the English courts, but it has been gradually abandoned, and now very little is left. The early justices were treated with high respect, not unmingled with a certain amount of awe, and members of the bar seldom attempted to be familiar with them either on or off the bench, unless they were in intimate social relations. It is related of Henry Clay, who was noted for suavity, that he stopped one day when arguing a case before the court, and advancing to the bench in graceful manner, took a pinch of snuff from the box of a justice, saying, ” I perceive that your honor sticks to the Scotch,” and then resumed his argument. This excited much astonishment at the time, and Justice Story said, I do not believe there is a man in the United States who could have done that but Mr. Clay.”

The first Chief Justice was John Jay, of New York, who was appointed when the court was organized, in 1789, and served until 1795. A portrait of him, painted by Gilbert Stuart, hangs in the robing-room. Following Jay were John Rutledge, of South Carolina, and Oliver Ellsworth, of Connecticut. Then John Marshall, of Virginia, became Chief Justice in 1801, and remained on the bench for thirty-four years.

Chief Justice Marshall has been placed in the front rank of American magistrates for profound learning, inflexible honesty, and a rare genius for logical argument. He was called ” the great Chief Justice.” He was dignified, but very kind in manner. He was tall and ungainly, and noted for wearing very shabby clothes. In the coldest weather he never wore an overcoat, and was often seen on winter days walking at a rapid pace through the streets of Washington, clad only in his rusty, thin black suit. He was very fond of society, was exceedingly hospitable, and frankly acknowledged he enjoyed the pleasures of the table. He took infinite delight in playing billiards and quoits, and even when over seventy-five years old was always ready, in his leisure moments, to play these games, and whenever he scored good points he would shout with childish glee. In addition to his severe labors as Chief Justice, he found time to write a very excellent life of Washington.

During his time one of the associate justices was Bushrod Washington, a nephew of President Washington. He was, on the bench for thirty-one years, and achieved a fine reputation as a learned and industrious magistrate. He was a small, thin man, of rather insignificant appearance. Severe study had deprived him of the use of one eye, but it was commonly remarked that ” he could see more with one eye ” than most men with two. He had a great fondness for Virginia tobacco, and was continually smoking or taking snuff. He was never known to become tired at the most protracted sittings of the court, and once greatly astonished the people of a town where he was holding a circuit court by having a continuous session for sixteen hours.

The early justices were not allotted to certain circuits, as they are now, but each in turn traveled over the entire country, often meeting with very interesting adventures. Justice Wilson always made the grand tour in a hugh lumbering coach and four, with dashing out-riders; Justice Todd, in one year, rode over two thousand miles on horseback in performing his judicial duty. Some of the justices traveled in open phaetons with two horses.

From 1835 to the present time there have been four Chief Justices —Roger B. Taney, Salmon P. Chase, Morrison R. Waite, and Melville W. Fuller. Taney served twenty-eight years, Chase a little less than ten years, and Chief Justice Waite served fourteen years. The present Chief Justice is Melville W. Fuller, appointed in 1888. There have been forty-five associate justices. Justice Joseph Story was a member of the court for thirty-four years and quite a number of the justices served more than twenty years. By the law of 1869 a justice may retire with full salary when seventy years old, if he has given ten years of service.

The docket of the court is always crowded with cases, most of them involving questions of great importance, and suitors are compelled to wait generally for two or three years, and sometimes longer, before they can have a hearing. Not more than four or five hundred cases can be disposed of in a year, and as there are usually over one thousand cases on the docket at each term, the unavoidable law’s delay” is very trying to the patience and the purses of litigants. Several plans of relief have been proposed, but as yet Congress has considered none of them.

The oflicial etiquette of Washington requires that the Chief Justice and the associate justices shall pay an official visit to the President and to the Vice-President annually, on the day of the opening of the court session. They are also required to call on the President on the first day of January. During the winter the President entertains the court at a ceremonious dinner.