Several years ago, I read an article about one lawyer’s account or his experience being admitted to the United States Supreme Court Bar, The idea sounded fascinating so I decided to apply for membership, even though I never expected to have the opportunity to argue a case before the nation’s highest court.
At the time l applied for membership in the Supreme Court Bar, I was unable to attend a session of the Court so I was admitted through the mail. Recently, two of my partners decided they wanted to apply for admission to the United States Supreme Court Bar. The Bar’s rules allow a current member to move for admission of new applicants, so the three of us decided to travel to Washington, DC when the Court was in session and experience in person the admission cerenmony in open court with me serving as the movant for the admission of my two partners.
This article is intended to provide a brief history of the Supreme Court, an overview of some aspects or the Supreme Court building, and an informational sketch about the process of application to the United States Supreme Court Bar. It is hoped that some who read this will consider applying for membership in the relatively small group that comprises the United States Supreme Court Bar.
Historically, Very Few Lawyers Become Members of the Supreme Court Bar
Admission 10 the United States Supreme Court Bar is an accomplishment that relatively few choose to pursue, but it is well worth the modest price of admission even if one never intends to brief or argue a case before the Court. Very few of the Court’s bar members ever have the opportunity to argue a case. The Court’s 2003-2004 calendar revealed only 38 days out of the entire year on which oral arguments were scheduled. The Court generally schedules two to four cases for argument on each of the 38 days on which arguments are calendared.
Obviously, many cases are argued by two or more attorneys per side, but if each case argued before the Court featured only one attorney per side, a minimum of 152 lawyers would have the opportunity to argue before the Court each year. Of course, in many cases that the Court accepts, oral arguments are not granted, and the cases are decided only on briefs. Nevertheless, many, if not most, of those who are members of the Court’s Bar may never argue a case before the Court.
Since the United States or America was founded, nearly a quarter-million lawyers have been admitted to the United States Supreme Court Bar. To be exact, 249,061 lawyers have been admitted to the Supreme Court Bar according to the United States Supreme Court’s Public information Office. However, the Supreme Court does not track when members die or cease
practicing for any reason. For that reason, it is impossible for the Clerk’s office to provide an accurate count of current members of the bar. While a quarter-million lawyers over America’s history might sound like a high number at first glance, it is actually quite small when one considers that the United States Supreme Court has existed for more than 200 years and during that time, there have been several million attorneys admitted to practice law in America. According to the American Bar Association, there are currently more than one million lawyers in the United States. Yet only about 1,000 lawyers per year are admitted in open court to the Supreme Court Bar.
In some ways, the process of admission in open court to the bar of the highest court in the United States or America is the ultimate tourist experience for attorneys. The history, traditions and ceremony of the Court are certainly worth learning about; the Supreme Court is incredible to tour; and when a lawyer becomes a member of the Supreme Court Bar, there are certain privileges of membership that continue for life. For example, members of the Supreme Court Bar have an open invitation to attend oral argument, and they are permitted to sit in a reserved seating area close to the bench. In addition, Supreme Court Bar membership entitles a bar member to the use of the Supreme Court library.
The Beginnings of America’s Highest Court
Membership in our nation’s highest court carries with it an obligation to consider at least a brief history of the beginnings of the Supreme Court. Article III, 1 of the United States
Constitution provides that “[t]he Judicial Power of the United States shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” The Supreme Court of the United States was created in accordance with this provision and by authority of the Judiciary Act of September 24, 1789 (1 Sat. 73).
Despite the current power of the Court, some might suggest that the third branch of government, the judicial branch, has in some ways been treated as the stepchild of the American government. The Supreme Court first assembled on February 2, 1790 in the Merchants Exchange Building in New York City. It was nearly 150 years into the American experiment before the United States Supreme Court had a home of its own. own. Of course, no one could accurately predict in 1787 how the Supreme Court would evolve or what it needs would be. The Judiciary Act of 1789 established three circuits and directed circuit courts to meet in each district of each circuit to person trial and some appellate functions. Each circuit court was manned by a district judge and two Supreme Court Justices, and the Justices had to participate in grueling circuit riding in order to provide the new nation with local justice. Given the size of the circuits and the primitive state of the roads in most parts of the young country, the Justices usually spent more time traveling than they did where the Court was based. Most Justices understandably hated the circuit-riding aspect of the position. In fact, the Justices wrote President Washington in 1792 and complained of existing in exile from their families. Eventually, the circuit courts were established and the judges were able to stop the practice of circuit riding, but it took 100 years from the formation of the Court before Congress officially ended the practice of circuit riding for Supreme Court Justices.
In 1800, when the United States Capitol was moved from Philadelphia to Washington, the President moved into the White House and the Congress moved into the Capitol. However, the Supreme Court had no home in Washington. Through a last-minute request to the Congress, the Court moved into a small, empty room in the Capitol. During the time the Supreme Court met in the Capitol, it changed its meeting place a half dozen times. During the time the Court met in the Capitol, a newspaper reporter of the day alleged that “a stranger might traverse the dark avenues the Capitol for a week without finding the remote corner in which Justice is administered to the American Republic.”‘ In the early days of the Court, the Justices sometimes left their Capitol space and went to Long’s Tavern to conduct their deliberations.
As, the final arbiter of the law, the Court is charged with ensuring the American people the promise of equal justice under law, and so the Court functions as guardian and interpreter of the Constitution. The Supreme Court is distinctly American in concept and function, as Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes observed. Few other courts in the world have the same authority of the constitution interpretation and none have exercised it for as long or with as much influence as had the United States Supreme Court. Yet the Court continued to meet in borrowed space in the Capitol for 135 years despite ongoing complaints of the inadequate space for Justices, their staff and attorneys who argued before the Court.
Quill pens have remained part of the courtroom scene. Twenty ten-inch white quills are placed on counsel tables each day that the Court sits, as had been done since the earliest sessions of the Court.
A President Becomes Chief Justice and Helps the Court Get a New Home
Finally, in 1929, Chief Justice William Howard Taft, who had been President of the United States from 1909 to 1913, persuaded Congress to end the space–sharing arrangement in the Capitol and authorize the construction of a permanent home for the Court. Chief Justice Taft charged Cass Gilbert, Sr., the project’s architect, to design “a building of dignity and importance suitable for its use as the permanent home of the Supreme Court of the United States.”‘ Unfortunately, neither Chief Justice Taft nor Gilbert lived long enough to see the building completed. Taft resigned from his position due to ill health and died a few months later.
Construction began in 1932 and three years later, the Court was able to move into its own building in 1935. The first session in the new Supreme Court building began on October 7, 1935 and there were no cases argued in that first session. In fact, the only business conducted on the Court’s first session was the admission of new attorneys to the bar. As a point of trivia, the first case to be argued in the new building was Douglas v. Willcuts, argued on October 14, 1935.
Not all the Justices wanted a new building, and some Justices and many in Congress opposed Taft’s relentless pursuit of the Supreme Court building. Oddly, even when the new building was completed, the Justices could not agree on whether they wanted to move into it. The Justices were so accustomed to their customary way of doing things that it took ten years before all nine Justices established their offices in the new building. In fact, when the building first opened, only two Justices moved into it Alabama’s Hugo Black was the first Justice appointed to the Court after the completion of the new building. When Justice Black moved into the building, he found it so sparsely populated that he was able to move into a choice corner suite. The building cost $94,000 less than the nearly $10 million Congress authorized for its construction and when the project was completed, nearly $94,000 was returned to the United States Treasury. The building appears today virtually as it did when completed in 1935.’ The Supreme Court building is located at One First Street, NE, Washington, DC 20543.
No longer a stepchild of America’s three-branch system of government, the beautiful building sheds the notion and image that the third branch of government is inferior to the other two branches. The classical Corinthian architectural style of the building is “on a scale in keeping with the importance and dignity of the Court and the Judiciary as a coequal, independent branch of the United States Government, and as a symbol of the national ideal of justice in the highest sphere of activity.”
The building rises four stories above the ground floor and measures 385 feet from front to back and 304 feet from left to right. The front steps lead to a 252-foot wide oval plaza flanked
with various symbols of justice. The architrave prominently features the carved quote, “Equal Justice Under Law.” In another location, the building features the carving, Justice the Guardian of Liberty.” The building’s impressive exterior features statues of great lawgivers including Moses, among others. The bronze carved doors at the main entrance to the building weigh six and one-half tons. Marble is used throughout the building, and more than $3 million worth of marble was gathered from foreign and domestic quarries. Above the basement level, the walls and floors of all corridors and walls are either wholly or partially covered in Madre Cream marble quarried in Alabama.
Some of the Court’s Traditions
For all of the changes in its history, the Supreme Court has retained many traditions since its inception. The nine Justices are seated by seniority on the bench with the Chief Justice in
the center and the associate Justices alternating right and left by seniority. Interestingly, Justice Harlan F. Stone was the only Justice to sit in every chair on the bench. He progressed from the most junior to the most senior Justice before he was appointed Chief Justice. In the beginning, all attorneys wore formal morning coats when arguing cases before the Court. The tradition of formal dress is now followed only by lawyers who serve as advocates for the United States government and by the Court’s Marshall and Clerk.
Quill pens have remained part of the courtroom scene. Twenty ten-inch white quills are placed on counsel tables each day that the Court sits, as has been done since the earliest sessions of the Court The “conference handshake” has been a tradition since the days of Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller in the late 19th century. When the Justices assemble to go on the bench each day and at the beginning of the private conferences at which they discuss decisions, each Justice shakes hands with each of the other eight. Chief Justice Fuller instituted the practice as a reminder that differences of opinion on the Court did not preclude overall harmony of purpose.
The Supreme Court has a traditional seal, which is similar to the Great Seal of the United States, but which has a single star beneath the eagle’s claws-symbolizing the Constitution’s creation of one Supreme Court.” The seal of the Supreme Court of the United States is kept in the custody of the Clerk of the Court and is stamped on official papers, such as certificates
given to attorneys newly admitted to practice before the Supreme Court The seal now used is the fifth in the Court’s history.
Application to the Supreme Court Bar
The Supreme Court’s rules provide that a lawyer who has been admitted to practice law for a period of at least three years and who is in good standing with his or her state’s highest
court may apply for membership to the Supreme Court Bar. The application is relatively short, especially when compared with the very lengthy applications required for admission to take the Alabama bar examination. Admission requires endorsement by two sponsors who are members of the Supreme Court Bar and who know the applicant personally but who are not related by blood or marriage. One of the sponsors or another member of the Bar, including a relative, may move your admission.
Applications for membership to the Supreme Court Bar may be downloaded at the Supreme Court’s Web site: www.supremecourtus.gov/bar/baradmissions.html. The entire process can be done through the mail, but it is highly recommended that applicants travel to Washington, DC and complete the process in open court. If you decide you will travel to Washington and seek admission in open court, visit the Supreme Court’s website (www.supremecourtus.gov) or call the Supreme Court Clerk’s office at (202) 479-3030 to find out when the Court will be in session. Although the Court’s session begins in October of each year, the Court’s oral argument schedule is fairly limited.
The Court’s Hours of Operation and Schedule
The Supreme Court building is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4:30 pm., Monday through Friday. The building is closed on weekends .and federal holidays. The Supreme Court’s library is open to members of the Bar of the Court, attorneys for the various federal departments and agencies and members of Congress. The term of Court begins on the first Monday in October and continues until the last Monday in October of the following year. Each tear during the course of a term of Court, the Court receives 8,000 petitions and 1,200 applications of various kinds that can be acted upon by single Justice.
The Court’s caseload has increased steadily to a current total of more than 7,000 cases on the docket per term. The increase has been rapid in recent years. In 1960, only 2,313 cases were on the docket, and in 1945, only 1,460. Plenary review, with oral arguments by attorneys, is granted in about 100 cases per term. Formal written opinions are given in 80 to 90 cases per year. Approximately 50 or 60 additional cases are disposed of without granting plenary review. The publication of a term’s written opinions, including concurring opinions, dissenting opinions and orders, approaches 5,000 pages. Some opinions are revised a dozen or more times before they are announced. A case selected for argument usually involves interpretations of the U.S. Constitution or federal law. At least four Justices have selected the case as being of such importance that the Supreme Court must resolve the legal issues.
Specifics About Oral Argument
Oral arguments at the Court are renowned for the strenuous questioning to which advocates are subjected. Oral arguments begin in October and continue through April. The court typically hears oral arguments only two or three days per week, beginning on either Monday or Tuesday and running through Wednesday. Close attention the the Court’s calendar is recommended. The Court publishes its argument calendar in advance listing the names of all cases to be argued and it is recommended that if your schedule has any flexibility, you choose a day to be admitted when there is a case to be argued that particularly appeals to you. However, you can assume that if the case appeals to you, it will appeal to many others and because space is limited, you need to reserve your admission early. All oral arguments are open to the public, byt seating is limited and on a first-come, first-seated basis. Before a session begins, two lines form on the plaza in front of the building. One is for those who wish to attend and entire argument, and the other, a three-minute line, is for those who wish to observe the Court in a session briefly. The Court will not allow you to hold space in either line for others who have not yet arrived. Seating for the first line begins at 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Seating for the three-minute line begins at 10 a.m and 1 p.m. The locations for the lines are marked with signs, and there is a police officer on duty to answer your questions, The Court does not recommend taking infants or small children into the courtroom.
Americans can boast of having some of the most open government buildings in the world. Even so, in a post-September 11th worlds, security concerns dictate that large areas of the building be placed off-limits to visitors. Visitors should be aware that cases often attract large crowds, with lines forming before the building opens. Obviously there are unavoidable delays associated with processing and seating large numbers of visitors and the process requires some measure of patience. Court police officers make every effort to inform visitors as soon as possible whether they can expect to secure a seat in the courtroom.
You will go through a security checkpoint as you enter the building and again as you enter the courtroom. Weapons or other dangerous or illegal items are not allowed on the grounds or in the building, The Court notifies visitors that certain items are prohibited in the courtroom when the Court is in session: cameras, radios, pagers, tape players, cell phones, take recorders, other electronic equipment, hats, overcoats, magazines and books, briefcases, and luggage. Sunglasses, identification tags (other than military), display buttons and inappropriate clothing may not be worn. A checkroom is available on the first floor to check coats and other personal belongings. Coin-operated lockers for the cameras and other valuables are available. The checkroom closes 30 minutes after Court adjourns.
At the Court
At 10 a.m. the marshal, dressed in morning clothes, announces the Justices with the traditional greeting: “The Honorable, the Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attentions, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court!” Incidentally, “oyez” is an archaic French term meaning “hear ye.” Once the Court is called to order, the first order of business is the announcement of opinions released by the Court. There was a time when the entirety of opinions was read to the public, but that time-consuming process is now curtailed to a brief summary of the decision and sometimes a summary of the dissent if there is one. Before the Court began announcing opinions in a summary form, it is said that some Justices would use the opportunity to rehash the Court’s decision and vocally underscore the wisdom of the dissenting opinion.
Next comes admission of the attorneys to the Supreme Court Bar. Once of the Court’s first rulings in 1790 was that any attorney who has been practicing for three years in the supreme court of his own state may seek admission to the Supreme Court Bar. About 1,000 lawyers do so each year in open court, and many more are admitted by mail. The Clerk of the Court administers the oath, and a fee of $100 is charged. For the first 100 years, the Court’s Clerk took a keen personal interest in collecting admissions fees because the clerks received no salary but were permitted to keep any filing fees paid to the Court. Because of this practice, the clerks were sometimes paid more than the Justices they served.
After attorneys are admitted, cases are agued. Except in very exceptional cases, each side is limited to 30 minutes. This is a dramatic departure from the early Court’s practice of permitting an extended period of time for oral arguments for each case that sometimes stretched into more than one day for each case. The Court’s marshal signals with a white light on the attorney’s podium when five minutes remain, and when the red light foes on, the speaker must stop in mid-sentence if need be. Only if he or she is in the middle of a question posed by a Justice is any extra time permitted.
Our Admission Experience
My partners and I traveled to Washington, DC this past fall and it was and experience we will treasure for the rest of our lives. Because we probably will not have an opportunity to argue a case before the Court and the odds are that we will not have the Court accept a case we have handled, we viewed the experience more than a historical appreciation standpoint than anything else. we have all agreed that if scheduling permits, the next time we are in Washington we will definitely return to the Court to take in the experience of observing oral argument.
Once we went through security, received a briefing on the process and stood in the lines that took us into the courtroom, we were seated. The applicants are seated together in a group near the left side of the bench, while the movants are in the front rows of the spectators’ gallery nearer the center of the bench. In the few minutes I had to talk to those seated around me, I met a federal judge, a law professor and an attorney who had argued more than 50 cases before the Court. The Court was called to order and the Justices entered the courtroom. We each looked at each Justice and thought about the career path that each traveled to receive the coveted appointment to the nation’s highest court.
The Court delivered opinions that were released and then Major General William. K. Suter, USA (Ret.), clerk for the U.S. Supreme Court, called each movant’s name on by one. As movant for my two partners, I approached the podium and waited for Chief Justice Rehnquist to recognize me. When he did, I read a few sentences from a script that was provided to us in our earlier briefing. When I reached the podium, I was somewhat nervous as I quickly took in the grandeur of the courtroom and glanced at the attorneys anxiously waiting to begin their arguments and then looked into the faces of nine most recognized jurists in America. Addressing the Chief Justice, I quoted from the prepared script that concluded with the following, “I am confident each posses the necessary qualifications.” Chief Justice Rehnquist responded, “your motion is granted.” I sat down and the next movant came to the podium. The entire process took only a few minutes but it was certainly worth it to all of us.
The atmosphere is decidedly formal and can cause even the most calm and experienced to get a touch of nerves. One federal judge inadvertently departed from the script and forgot to add that the applicants she was sponsoring possessed the necessary qualifications. The Chief Justice asked, “are you confident that each possess the necessary qualifications?” The judge, somewhat embarrassed, added, “yes, Mr. Chief Justice, I am confident each posses the necessary qualifications.”
Following the admission, the Clerk administers the oath, “do you solemnly swear that as an attorney and as a counsel of this court you will conduct yourself uprightly, and according to law, and that you will support the Constitution of the United States so help you God?” Most admittees and movants stayed for oral arguments although the Court permits visitors to reverently leave the courtroom during arguments. On the day I moved for my partners’ admission to the Supreme Court Bar, we were blessed with the most exciting of cases being argued to the Court. One was an ERISA case and the other was a case about a housing issue. Even so, the process was intriguing as the Justices started off slowly but before the end of the argument, each Justice peppered the attorneys with difficult questions.
One of the reminders of admission to the Supreme Court bar is is a beautiful certificate of membership. Interestingly, the certificate of admission contains not only the full name of the applicant, but also the full name of the movant.
Although none of us will always agree with every decision of the United States Supreme Court, Americans can be proud that the founding fathers had the foresight to create the judicial branch of government. Our judiciary is a big part of what makes America great. Even though no one could accurately predict in 1787 how the Supreme Court would change or what its needs would be, the Court evolved into a powerful branch of American government. The Court is no longer the afterthought that it once was during the time it had to beg for a space in the Capitol. Now, the Court’s building is one of the most visited tourist sites in Washington, DC and particularly so for lawyers. Admission in the open court to the bar of the highest court in the United States of America is the ultimate tourist experience for attorneys. The Court’s history, tradition and ceremony are worth a special trip to Washington, DC; the Supreme Court building is breathtaking; and becoming a member of the Supreme Court Bar is something all attorneys should consider.