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Golfers on the Court

SCOTUS Scoop: Golfers on the Court, Sandra Day O'Connor
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was a fine golfer who, family members have said, practiced for two years on a driving range before ever playing on a course. Justice O’Connor has stated “it was more like four years”. Photo credit: Arizona Republic

Golf enthusiasts of both the professional and amateur game feasted this past weekend on championship play at the British Open (the “Open”) and the U.S. Golf Association’s Junior Women’s Amateur tournament. The Open is the oldest golf tournament in the world and its 149th tourney was played over the weekend at Royal St. George’s Club in the cool breezes offshore, near the Cliffs of Dover. Simultaneously, the 72nd U.S. Junior Women’s Amateur championship concluded this weekend, and it was hosted in sweltering heat by the Columbia Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland. Like the varying weather, the history of interest in the game by Justices at the Supreme Court ranges from “cool to hot” and can be traced to events that even predate the Open. Ross Davies’ article on “The Judicial and Ancient Game” that appears in our Journal of Supreme Court History, Vol. 35, No. 2, 2010, does just that and is an interesting and entertaining piece that we think our readers would enjoy again.

Davies’ piece focuses primarily on Justices James Wilson’s and John Marshall Harlan’s interest in the game. Wilson was born and raised in Scotland, birthplace of golf, and was known to have played the game while in Edinburgh in 1765. It is not known, however, whether he golfed when he moved to America and while he served on the Supreme Court from 1790 to 1798. As Davies points out, in the early years of the Republic, the British game’s popularity cooled considerably in the U.S. and did not heat up again until the late 1800s. Indeed, in 1896, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase’s granddaughter, Beatrix Hoyt, won the U.S. Women’s Amateur Golf Championship.

Justice Harlan was one of the greatest devotees of the game in Court history and his exploits on golf courses with President Taft (before he was Chief Justice), Justice Mahlon Pitney, and other brethren are well chronicled in the Davies article. Those include wild dashes from the Chevy Chase Country Club where he would finish an early morning round of golf and head to the Court’s chambers in the U.S. Capitol Building to put on his robe for Oral Argument just in the nick of time. He was described by his colleagues Justices David Brewer and William Rufus Day as having “slept with the Bible in one hand, the Constitution in the other, and his golf sticks under his pillow.”

Several other Justices since the Harlan and Taft years on the Court have enjoyed the game. In more recent years, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was a fine golfer who, family members have said, practiced for two years on a driving range before ever playing on a course. They claimed, as a result, she shot a 90 (an outstanding score for one’s first round of golf) the first time she ever played a round. Justice O’Connor informed the Women’s Golf Journal that the score was apocryphal, but did say, however, her practice was “more like four years.” After her retirement from the bench, Justice O’Connor was appointed to the U.S. Golf Association President’s Council. While attending the advisory Council’s meeting in June of 2007 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Justice O’Connor played a round of golf with Arnold Palmer. Whether you are a golf enthusiast or not, most would agree that would beat the normal end-of-Term opinion writing crunch in June — by a long shot.