If These Walls Could Speak – a Brief History of the U.S. Supreme Court Building

by Veselin Simonov

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Image by Flickr use Matt Wade

Lawyers and law students stand in awe of the Supreme Court of the United States. We reverently refer to it as “the Court”. We pick and choose the justices we like and agree with. We read the cases and treat the rulings as powerful and definitive. We argue over the Court’s role in our democracy but even during our debates we cannot overstate its importance to our society. The power of judicial review makes the Court the ultimate authority on saying what the law is. The Court is the nation’s heart of judicial power and such a powerful institution doesn’t come without its fair share of fascinating history.

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The courtroom. Featuring the pillars made of Sienna marble. Image by Flickr user Phil Roeder.

Take the building the Court meets in, for example. Surprisingly, it’s relatively new – the Court didn’t get its own building until 1935 after existing for 146 years. At the very beginning, the National Capital was located in New York and the Court met at the Merchants Exchange Building. The Capital then moved to Philadelphia in 1790. There, the Court convened first in the State House (Independence Hall) and then in City Hall. Ten years later, the Capital moved again, this time to its permanent home in Washington, D.C. and the Court had no building of its own in which to convene. Congress thus offered the Court space in the Capitol Building. This started a period during which the Court would move several times around the Capitol Building. This ended when the British set fire to the Capitol in the War of 1812 and the Court was forced to meet in a private home until 1819. Once the Capitol was restored, the Court moved back in and met in a chamber now known as the “Old Supreme Court Chamber” until 1860. Then, the Court relocated to what is now known as the “Old Senate Chamber” until it finally moved into its own building in 1935.

The new building’s chief proponent was Chief Justice William Howard Taft (yes, that William Howard Taft – President Harding appointed him to the bench eight years after Taft finished his term as the 27th U.S. President). Taft convinced Congress to stop housing the Court in the Capitol Building and give it its own place. To that end, Cass Gilbert was chosen as the lead architect. Tragically, neither Gilbert nor Taft would live to see the building completed and the construction of their vision was finished under the direction of their successors. On October 13, 1932, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes spoke as the cornerstone was laid. His words were “the Republic endures and this is the symbol of its faith.”

Construction was complete in 1935 and the Court held its first session there on October 7 of that very year. The building incorporates several different types of marble. The main facade is made of Vermont marble while the inner courtyards consist of Georgia marble. The marble for the main courtroom’s 24 columns comes from Sienna, Italy – as per Gilbert’s exact directions. The building currently houses the Great Hall, the courtroom, the reading rooms and chambers of the justices, an exhibition hall, a gym, a basketball court (aptly named the Highest Court in the Land) and much more.

Not everyone was thrilled with the opulence of the structure. Associate Justice Harlan Fiske Stone called it “almost bombastically pretentious…wholly inappropriate for a quiet group of old boys such as the Supreme Court.” Another justice supposedly said the justices would be “nine black beetles in the Temple of Karnak.” Yet another justice humorously suggested that they should ride into the building on elephants. Remarkably, the opulent building came in $94,000 under budget, costing around $9.6 million in 1935 terms ($169.5 million in modern terms).

Concerns over the building’s extravagance aside, the Court finally had a home of its own – a place not only for the justices to decide cases, but a building symbolic of the judicial authority of the U.S.

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The Great Hall. Image by Flickr user Phil Roeder.

Spring ALERT Program

Welcome back!

What you have been awaiting: the spring 2017 ALERT schedule.

  • Topic 1: Researching Ethics Decisions (1/18 @5:00 and 1/19 @1:00)
  • Topic 2: Tech Tools (2/8 @5:00 and 1/9 @3:00)
  • Topic 3: Fastcase! (3/1 @5:00 and 3/2 @3:00)
  • Topic 4: Tools/Databases for Transactional Practice (3/29 @5:00 and 3/30 @3:00)

Sign up here.

And

Read more about the ALERT program here (ok, yes both links are the same).

Break!

For some, it is the most wonderful time of the year.  Exams end and a long break begins.

It is not wonderful for me.  I am so very sad to see everyone go. Come back!  /s

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By Mdf

The library will only be closed for a couple of weeks. Whew! We will be back for limited hours on January 2, 2017 before swinging into full hours.

Here are specifics:

  • Thursday, December 15th & 16th: 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
  • Saturday, December 17th – Sunday, January 1st:  Closed
  • Monday, January 2nd – Friday, January 6th: 8 a.m. – 6 p.m.
  • Saturday & Sunday January 7th and 8th: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.

Thanksgiving & Exam Hours

As usual, we’re changing up the library’s hours for the Thanksgiving holiday and the upcoming exam period.

During the week of Thanksgiving we are operating with reduced hours, as follows:

  • Monday, Nov. 21s & Tuesday, Nov. 22nd: 8 a.m. – 9 p.m.
  • Wednesday, Nov. 23rd: 8 a.m. – 6 p.m.
  • Thursday, Nov. 24th – Saturday, Nov. 26th: Closed

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We will reopen for extended hours on November 27th through December 14th. During this period, the building is closed to those not affiliated with the College of Law.  Since we are open until midnight, do remember you can call a safety escort when you are here studying late.

After the exam period (whew!), we will again have reduced hours until the winter break, as follows:

  • Thursday, December 15th & 16th: 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.

 

The above is also on our calendar.

Coloring in the Library

You may have noticed the coloring materials available at the seats near the SHELF* in the library lobby.

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Coloring supplies in library lobby. Photo by Meg Butler.

Coloring is fun and some studies indicate it is great for stress relief. In other words, it is perfect for a quick study break during the lead up to exams.

Sam Briggs, a 1L, suggested that we post the completed pictures, so folks can see the images they have worked on. If this encourages folks to take a few minutes and color, even better! For now, we are posting the completed sheets in the library lobby.

If you are a member of the College of Law mindfulness group, you may want to try coloring as another way to meditate, focusing on the coloring, staying in the lines, the patterns in the pictures, etc.

If coloring is not your thing, the library recently purchased The Anxious Lawyer: An 8-Week Guide to a Joyful and Satisfying Law Practice Through Mindfulness and Meditation.  You can find that in the 6th floor stacks, if you’d like to borrow it.

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Completed coloring page, image of Statue of Liberty. Photo by Meg Butler.

*The SHELF is the name for the large computer in the library lobby, which students are also welcome to use.

Paint by US Code Number : Presidential Elections

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Waterskiing Uncle Sam by Jefferson National Expansion Memorial

As we near the end of the US Presidential race, elections have taken center stage in American consciousness.  Headlines about recounts and possible non-concession have brought back memories of the Bush-Gore legal battles over Florida and a general re-interest in election law. But, where exactly does election law come from?  While the nuts and bolts of the actual elections is left to the states, the United States Code lays out a very particular, partly unknown, and maybe even esoteric set of steps required to elect the Preside of the United States.  So, come with me on an educational and entertaining journey through Title 3, sections 1-20 of the US code. Make sure to hold on to your hats- things might get weird.

 

3 U.S.C. § 1  – Time of appointing electors

This is straightforward, mostly.  The states appoint their electors, the people who actually elect the president, on the “Tuesday after the next Monday in November” following the presidential election.  Yes, you read that right.  States don’t even pick their electors until after the election. Contrary to popular belief, the citizens of the US do not actually elect the president, electors do.  Each state decides how the vote of their citizens effects the votes of the electors.  Typically, the electors select whichever candidate wins the state.  However, Nebraska and Maine election laws allow the states to split their electoral votes proportionally according to the popular vote.

 

3 U.S.C. § 2 – Failure to make a choice on proscribed day

If the state fails to choose electors on the proscribed day, the job then falls to the state legislature.

 

3 U.S.C. § 3 – Number of electors

This is probably the best known of the US election statutes.  The states get a number of electors equal to their number of Senators and Representatives.

 

3 U.S.C. § 4 (2012) – Vacancies in Electoral College

States can fill any vacancies in their electors when those electors meet to actually vote.

 

3 U.S.C. § 5  – Determination of controversy as to appointment of electors

This one is strange.  If the states choose, they can create procedures for settling any controversy in the picking of electors.  However, 3 U.S.C. § 5 requires that these procedures make a determination at least six days before the state electors meet to cast their votes. Don’t want to hold up the entire US Presidential election because of a few people fighting over who gets to be their states proxy vote now, do we?

 

3 U.S.C. § 6  – Credentials of electors; transmission to Archivist of the United States and to Congress; public inspection

Ok, this one is a bit long, and weird.  The executive of each state, typically the Governor, “as soon as practicable” must give “a certificate of ascertainment” , by certified mail, of all the state’s electors to the Archivist of the United States.  If the electors are chosen by votes, the governor has to include the number of votes too.  The governor must also send six duplicates of this certificate to each of the state’s electors.  If there was a controversy, the Governor must also send a certificate stating the outcome of that controversy.  The Archivist must keep all of these certificates for at least one year for public inspection, and give copies to both the house and senate of each and every certificate received.  I’m pretty sure certificate means letter or document in “Old Timey Government English”, and this whole electoral process stems from a time when electors had more power (ie. they were less likely to listen to the state’s voters.)  However, it a nice piece of election tradition as well as a reminder of American history, so, why not? Lets keep going!

 

3 U.S.C. § 7 (2012) – Meeting and vote of electors

Finally, an easy one.  Electors shall meet and give their votes on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December next following their appointment at such place in each State.  That’s right, again.   The entirety of the nation is well aware of who is going to be the president well before they are actually elected by the electors.

 

3 U.S.C. § 8 – Manner of Voting

Another easy one.  The electors vote as directed by the constitution.  We’ll save the constitution for another day.

 

3 U.S.C. § 9 – Certificates of votes for the President and Vice President

The electors must make and sign six certificates, with each certificate containing two lists; one for president and the other for the vice president.  Yes, for each electoral vote they must provide six signed certificates.   They also attach one of the lists of electors given to them by the executive of the state, or Governor, to each certificate.

 

3 U.S.C. § 10 – Sealing and endorsing certificates

Another easy one- they have to seal and endorse the certificates.  That’s all this law says.  You’d think they could have just rolled that into § 9.

 

3 U.S.C. § 11 – Disposition of certificates

What do they do with all these new certificates?  § 11 and I are both glad you asked.  The electors deliver the certificates as follows: one to the President of the Senate, one to the Secretary of the State, two to the archivist of the US, and one to the judge of the district where the electors assembled.  The archivist must keep one of the copies in case the president of the senate requests it, and the other for public inspection.

 

3 U.S.C. § 12– Failure of certificates of electors to reach President of the Senate or Archivist of the United States; demand on State for certificate

This seems to be another section of the law that was much more important before you could pick up a phone and ask the governor; “hey! Governor!  Where are all the certificates?” If the certificates fail to arrive to the President of the Senate or the Archivist by the fourth Wednesday in December, probably a week after the voting, The President of the senate should request the backup certificates from the Secretary of the State.  § 12 also says that the Archivist should serve as back up, and do the requesting if the President of the Senate  is absent.

 

3 U.S.C. § 13 –  Same; demand on district judge for certificate

The reason for the six certificates, and the preference by the drafters for multiple contingency plans, is becoming more evident.  If the President of the Senate or the Archivist strike out with the Governor, they then should ask the District Judge.

 

3 U.S.C. § 14 – Forfeiture for messenger’s neglect of duty

So you were supposed to deliver the certificates to the President of the Senate, or Archivist, and you forgot?  Do not pass go.  Forfeit $1000.  Seriously. If you mess this up, by law, you must forfeit $1000.

 

3 U.S.C. § 15 – Counting electoral votes in congress

Where: The sixth day of January succeeding every meeting of the electors, The House of Representatives

Who: Congress, both houses, the whole thing.

When? 1:00 pm

What: Counting the votes.  This section lays out, in tedious minutia, the rules for counting the electoral votes.  This whole thing is too long to cover here, but some of the highlights are:  The President of the Senate open the envelopes.  The state’s votes are counted in alphabetical order, starting with the letter “A.”  As they are opened, the envelopes should be immediately handed to two previously appointed tellers.  The counts are entered into both the House and Senate Journals.  Objections must be made in writing, and be signed by a member of both the House and Senate.  After all objections to a vote are received and read, the Senate leaves the House so each can debate independently.  But, so long as the electors were correctly certified, there’s not much either body can do.

 

3 U.S.C.A. § 16 –  Same; seats for officers and Members of two Houses in joint meeting

But where  is everyone going to sit?  Thank goodness, the statutes actually tell us.  President of the Senate: Speakers Chair; Speaker – on the Presidents left;  Senators – the hall on the Right; Representatives – anywhere the Senators are not sitting; Tellers, Secretary of Senate, Clerk of The House – at the Clerks Desk;  Other various officers – in front of the Clerk’s desk and upon each side of the Speaker’s platform.  This section also states that they can’t dissolve the meeting until all the votes are counted and the winner declared.  They cannot take a recess unless they have some question about the votes.  Even then, they cannot declare a recess beyond the next calendar day, Sunday excepted, at 10:00 “in the forenoon.”  If they haven’t completed the counting by the fifth calendar day, they cannot take any more recesses.

 

3 U.S.C.A. § 17- Same; limit of debate in each House

If the two houses separate to decide on an objection, as per § 15, each Senator or Member can only speak for five minutes, and not more than once.  The whole debate cannot go on more than two hours.  Limited filibustering only.

 

3 U.S.C.A. § 18 –  Same; parliamentary procedure at joint meeting

The president of the senate has the power to preserve order.

 

3 U.S.C.A. § 19 –  Vacancy in offices of both President and Vice President; officers eligible to act

Like the constitution, we’ll deal with vacancies at another time.

 

3 U.S.C.A. § 20 – Resignation or Refusal of Office

….must be in writing and delivered to the secretary of state.  Thank goodness, this is over.