How The Court Works | Visiting the Court

Visitors are invited to view the Courtroom at any time when the Court is not in session; brief lectures are given there every hour on the half hour. On the ground floor the public may see two graceful spiral staircases and the historical exhibits that are among the responsibilities of the Curator, Catherine Fitts. In 1982 this area acquired a magnificent centerpiece: a larger-than-life bronze statue of John Marshall. It had stood on the west terrace of the Capitol since 1884, when the Supreme Court still met in that building. The sculptor, William Wetmore Story, was the son of Justice Joseph Story, who served on the Court during the Marshall era.

Since 1970, burgundy carpeting and green plants in the corridors and flowers in the courtyards have relieved the austerity of the marble. Gold and deep red then replaced institutional green in the cafeteria, which is open to the public but reserves special time at lunch for the Court staff in the interest of efficiency.

The Court is increasingly popular among visitors to Washington, and the number who came to look and listen reached 900,000 in 1993. Visitors who want to see the Court at work should check its schedule in advance. Usually it alternates two weeks of hearing cases, on Monday through Wednesday, with two weeks of recess, for opinion-writing.

Spectators are admitted to the Chamber as seats become available. The public seating capacity is approximately 250; but for the most dramatic cases and special occasions there is never enough room.

All visitors must check coats, hats, briefcases, books, umbrellas, cameras, radios, pagers, cell phones, tape recorders and other electronic equipment before entering the Chamber. Marshal Talkin and her aides may politely find clothes too informal. Standards have relaxed greatly since coats and ties were obligatory for men, but T-shirts, slacks, and shoes are the very minimum required for admittance. The presence of small children is not encouraged—"Oh, no younger than about six," says a police officer. "But the young ones usually behave; they seem to catch the atmosphere."

Constantly during a session the aisles are patrolled to see that no one breaks the rules by writing or sketching (permitted only in the press section) or whispering, or, as officially described, expressing "favor or disfavor." Even draping one’s arm over the back of a chair is still against the rules but the Marshal no longer insists that attorneys in the bar section keep their suit coats buttoned.

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