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Above It All: How the Court Got So Supreme

Longreads – Secrecy and speechifying, collegiality and hierarchy, exceptionalism and opulence on the Supreme Court. “…At the corner of East Capitol and First in Washington, D.C., across the street and a world away from the workaday Congress, resides the Court. Its proximity to Congress serves as a reminder of the looming power of the third branch of government. Built on the site of a prison for captured Confederates — the prison held Mary Surratt, Samuel Mudd and others arrested after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination — the Court is the closest thing we have to a secular shrine. When its cornerstone was laid in 1932, amid the Great Depression, Charles Evans Hughes, the chief justice, proclaimed, “The Republic endures and this is the symbol of its faith.” The Court is the most powerful in the history of the world…Someone once remarked that if the gods had an office, it would look like the Supreme Chamber. By any other name in our constitutional system, the justices are a priesthood, with all the trappings. They certainly dress the part — that’s why they wear the black robes, a practice dating to the estimable John Marshall, chief justice in the early 19th century. “I’m sure we could do our work without the robes,” Scalia acknowledged in an interview, but they “impart the significance of what goes on here.” The justices wear them even at such nonjudicial events as the State of the Union by the president in the Capitol. For Rehnquist, austere black was not enough. He started wearing his robes with four personally designed gold stripes festooned on each sleeve, inspired by the Lord Chancellor in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe.” (Roberts abandoned the self-congratulatory practice.)..”

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