Legal Eats: Food and the Culture of the United States Supreme Court

- Leslie Poste

The National Museum of American History hosted U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor in a discussion on Wednesday on the great and long-standing impact of food on the culture of the nation’s highest court.

On the Supreme Court, nine justices—each with different backgrounds, legislative experiences, and understandings of the Constitution—determine the final interpretation and application of the law in the most pressing cases impacting the nation. There seems little doubt that the stakes are high, and so too might run tensions.

But in sharing meals together, explained Smithsonian Secretary David J. Skorton, the diverse justices “enhance cordiality and cooperation.”

Fellow panelists Catherine E. Fitts, U.S. Supreme Court curator, and Clare Cushman, publications director at the Supreme Court Historical Society, detailed the early history of food in the courts. Since the meal shared in a Lower Manhattan tavern after the court first convened in 1790, dining together has been an important element of the justice’s interactions. In the early 1800s, under Chief Justice John Marshall, the justices not only dined together but lived together in a boarding house during their short terms. Deliberations over dinner would not be uncommon. Consuming wine was limited to rainy days but that rule might be skirted during pleasant weather, as Ginsburg explained, with the reasoning that “it’s raining somewhere.”

In the 1830s, as the justices moved away from staying in boarding houses during their terms, Ginsburg noted that dissents began to appear alongside majority opinions.

Fitts and Cushman recounted tales of justices, hearing long oral arguments, slipping behind the bench to enjoy a meal out of sight—but not unheard. The clatter of dishware—and, as one story goes, the pop of a champagne cork—could be heard within the courtroom. This practice ended in 1898 with the introduction of a half-hour lunch break. With time limited, many justices brought lunch from home. This need for midday repast even influenced the planning of the U.S. Supreme Court building, as Chief Justice William Howard Taft required it have a cafeteria and a dining room for justices. The building opened in 1935, and it wasn’t until 1970 that the lunch break was expanded to the hour-long adjournment the justices now enjoy.

“We can’t talk about cases,” said Sotomayor, a regular group lunchtime attendee. “That’s our absolute rule.” The justices avoid controversial topics, instead discussing what books they’re reading and what museum exhibitions they’re seeing. There they celebrate justice’s birthdays with wine and the traditional singing of “Happy Birthday.”

“Truth be told, most of them can’t carry a tune,” Ginsburg said.

Sometimes guests are invited to the luncheons to enliven discussion. Only two, Ginsburg said, have received repeat invitations: former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan and former World Bank Group president James Wolfensohn.

“Those two have an uncanny ability to eat lunch and speak at the same time,” Ginsburg said.

Ginsburg and Sotomayor also described the collegial way that food is shared between the justices: the spicy jerky made by her brother that Justice Sandra Day O'Connor would provide; regional treats and edible tokens from travels; meats from Justice Antonin Scalia’s hunting trips; and the abundant candy that Sotomayor, who has had diabetes since childhood, keeps for guests in her office.

Ginsburg and Sotomayor spoke of the care the justices take in planning grand welcoming receptions and farewell parties for their colleagues, as well as the everyday congenial lunches.

In discussion of the lunch break observed by the modern court, the topic turned to the eating habits of the justices. Justice Louis Brandeis enjoyed a sandwich of spinach and wheat bread. Justice Harlan Fiske Stone’s wife packed for him a bevy of French cheeses. And Justice David Souter, Ginsburg recounted with a shake of the head, ate plain yogurt. Sotomayor recalled him also bringing an apple, but Ginsburg said that was for later in the day—and that he’d eat the core as well.

The justices present for the panel were not spared from this discussion of dining proclivities. Sotomayor shared that she likes the variety of salads and sandwiches, and occasionally orders out from a local Japanese restaurant and a local Indian restaurant. Ginsburg opts for a simple lunch, and made several jokes throughout the evening about her limited abilities in the kitchen. Her husband, lawyer and law professor Martin Ginsburg, was the chef of the family. He passed away in 2010. By all accounts that evening, he was an accomplished baker and cook, and part of a long history of dining and hosting by court spouses.

Until the Great Depression, justice’s wives would host Monday teas—often for hundreds of guests, and paid for by the justice. The wives would also come together for meals in the court’s Ladies Dining Room—a name that had become problematic when Justice Ginsburg joined Justice O'Connor on the court, both with male spouses. The space was later renamed the Natalie Cornell Rehnquist Dining Room, in honor of Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s late wife.

The panelists recalled Martin fondly, sharing stories about how the “Chef Supreme” contributed significantly to the dining traditions of the court, impacting its food culture. He would bake birthday cakes for the justices and clerks, join other court spouses in preparing the traditional dinner before the State of the Union, and participate in the luncheons the court spouses host four times a year. Ginsburg said her husband recognized the power that food had to bring the justices on the court together.

Leslie Poster is an editor and writer in the Office of Project Management and Editorial Services.

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