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Future British Monarchs Visit the Court

Elizabeth II was Queen of England for 70 years until her death on September 8. Her reign spanned the tenure of 34 associate justices and five chief justices. Her son, Charles III, became King the same day she died. Both have been esteemed guests of the Supreme Court on diplomatic visits to the United States, albeit before they became monarchs.

On October 31, 1951, Princess Elizabeth, age 25, touched down in Washington after a month-long tour of Canada. She and her husband, Prince Philip, were greeted at the airport by President Harry S. Truman and his wife, Bess, and then stayed at Blair House with the Trumans as the White House was undergoing a renovation. Elizabeth and Philip were in Washington for only 45 hours, but managed to visit the Library of Congress, the Capitol building, Mount Vernon, the National Cathedral gardens, and Arlington National Cemetery. Perhaps because of her deep interest in constitutional history, Princess Elizabeth also squeezed in a visit to the Supreme Court.

On November 2, at 11:30 a.m., the royal couple pulled up in a car at One First Street. Crowds of excited Washingtonians lined the street to greet the pair as they ascended the front steps of the Supreme Court building. Staff and guests stood in the Great Hall to watch them arrive and be escorted to the Courtroom. Thomas E. Waggaman, the Marshal, gave Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip a tour of the Courtroom before they met with Chief Justice Fred Vinson and the associate justices in the Justices’ Conference Room. According to Newton Minow, one of Vinson’s clerks, the Chief later remarked that Elizabeth was “warm and friendly” during their brief meeting. Minow stood in the corridor as the royal couple passed and was especially interested in seeing the Princess in person because “she and I were the same age, and because I had served as a U.S. Army sergeant under British command in the China Burma India Theater in World War II.” At 11:55 a.m. Supreme Court staff gathered under the columns at the top of the steps to watch the future Queen depart. Three months later, on February 6, 1952, her father died and she became sovereign.

Queen Elizabeth did not return to the Supreme Court on her many subsequent visits to our nation’s capital, although she did meet individual justices at White House events. Nearly six decades after her visit, on May 3, 2011, Prince Charles III followed in her footsteps. Associate Justice Stephen Breyer had invited him to a reception for alumni of the Marshall Scholars Program. Established in 1953 and named for World War II General George C. Marshall, the postgraduate program sends U.S. students to universities in the United Kingdom to promote lasting ties between future British and American leaders. Breyer studied at Oxford University’s Magdalen College in 1959 and is one of its many distinguished alumni. He is married to Dr. Joanna Freda Hare, an Oxford graduate and the daughter of a British noble, and the justice had met the prince on previous occasions.

Justice Breyer greeted Prince Charles as his car pulled up to the curb in front; they entered the building through the side entrance. Charles had just toured Common Good City Farm, a nearby urban farm which grows produce for low-income residents. He met with Justices Breyer, Anthony Kennedy, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan in the Courtroom. Then Breyer and Charles joined the alumni reception for Marshall Scholars in the West Conference Room. After an hour, Charles descended the marble steps with Breyer at his side. The future King walked across the plaza to his car the way his parents had done sixty years earlier.

Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s 1951 visit can be viewed on YouTube below. Their visit to the Court can be seen starting at timestamp 19:51.
For more information on visits by royalty and heads of state to the Supreme Court see: Theodore M. Vestal “Public Diplomacy in the Supreme Court: The Warren Years – Part I,” Journal of Supreme Court History, 2008 vol. 33 no. 3.