White Quill Pens and Handshakes: The U.S. Supreme Court

There are many prestigious institutions in Washington, D.C., and perhaps none more grand than the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court has retained so many traditions that it is in many respects the same institution that first met in 1790, prompting one legal historian to refer to it as, “the first Court still sitting.” The Court is the highest tribunal in the nation for all cases and controversies arising under the Constitution, or laws of the United States. The Court’s duty is to ensure “equal justice under law.”

Currently, the Court is composed of 9 members, the Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices, and is housed at One First Street, N.E. in Washington, D.C. The Term of the Court begins, by law, on the first Monday in October and lasts until the first Monday in October of the next year. There are approximately 10,000 petitions filed with the Court in the course of a Term. In addition, some 1,200 applications of various kinds are filed each year that can be acted upon by a single Justice. Of these petitions of certiorari (requests to review a case), only 1 to 2 percent of the cases are heard. The Court issued 83 opinions in the ’08-’09 Term, and is on track to issue around the same number this Term. For more information on cases and weekly schedules, visit the leading U.S. Supreme Court blog, www.scotusblog.com.

As for white quill pens and handshakes, both are a daily tradition at the Court. White quill pens are placed on counsel tables each day that the Court sits, as was done at the earliest sessions of the Court. The “Conference handshake” has been a tradition since the days of Chief Judge Melville W. Fuller in the late 19th century. When the Justices assemble to go on the Bench each day, each Justice shakes hands with each of the other eight. Chief Justice Fuller instituted the practice as a reminder that differences of opinion on the Court did not preclude overall harmony of purpose.

Visiting the Supreme Court

The Court remains a formal and traditional institution, and yet there are many opportunities for individuals and groups to experience its exclusivity. The Court offers lectures and tours on a daily basis, and oral arguments are actually open to the public. Click here for more information on planning your visit. http://www.supremecourtus.gov/visiting/visiting.html

Participants in the Legal Studies Institute have visited the U.S. Supreme Court for the past two summers, most recently for an exclusive discussion with Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. The Court is also situated only two blocks from the Capitol Hill housing provided to the LSI students. “I find it amazing that on my daily commute to work, I pass by the U.S. Supreme Court building, a place I used to only read about when briefing cases in the classroom.” Greg Dewan, LSI Participant & 2nd Year law student at Emory Law School For more information about the Supreme Court, please visit www.supremecourtus.gov

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