Humor in the Court:
Who’s the funniest justice? A study of the 2004 Supreme Court term found that Antonin Scalia drew the most chuckles during oral arguments, triggering no less than 77 rounds of laughter. (Stephen Breyer was the runner-up with 45, while Clarence Thomas came in last with nary a guffaw to his name.) But Elena Kagan, the most junior justice on the bench, may give her famously droll colleague a run for his money. During her 2010 confirmation hearings, Kagan reportedly had the Senate in stitches. Asked by Senator Arlen Specter how she felt about televised Supreme Court sessions, for example, she quipped, “It means I’d have to get my hair done more often.” When Senator Tom Coburn remarked that he was 12 or 13 years older than the nominee, Kagan shot back, “Maybe not after this hearing.”
When the Supreme Court was established in 1789, the chief justice earned $4,000 a year in wages, while associate justices made $3,500. By 2010, those numbers had increased to $223,500 and $213,900, respectively.
Before taking their seats at the beginning of each session, the Supreme Court justices exchange a so-called “conference handshake” with one another. Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller introduced the practice in the late 1800s as a reminder that, no matter how much their opinions may differ, the members ultimately share a common purpose.
Bottom of the Bench:
The junior justice–the most recent appointee on the roster–has a special place in the hierarchy of the Supreme Court. According to tradition, they have the honor of taking notes, answering the telephone, opening the door and pouring their colleagues’ coffee during private conferences. Justice Stephen Breyer spent 10 years on the lowest rung, performing the court’s grunt work well into his late 60s, when Justice Samuel Alito finally assumed the junior justice mantle. In Breyer’s own account, he once made a self-congratulatory–and self-deprecating–remark while serving coffee to Justice Antonin Scalia in 2005: “I’ve been doing this for 10 years. I’ve gotten pretty good at it, haven’t I?” Scalia, who is rumored to wield the court’s most caustic tongue, shot back, “No, you haven’t.”
Tenures to Remember:
William O. Douglas, who stepped down in November 1975 after 36 and a half years on the bench, holds the record for the longest Supreme Court tenure in U.S. history. Thomas Johnson, the author of the court’s first written opinion, served the shortest stint. He retired in 1793 after just five months in office, complaining that the once-common practice of circuit riding–traveling across the country to hear appeals–had taken a severe toll on his health.
Although 26 U.S. presidents worked as lawyers at some point during their careers, only one also served on the Supreme Court. In 1921, eight years after leaving the White House, William Howard Taft achieved his lifelong goal of becoming chief justice. He sat on the bench for eight and a half years, retiring five weeks before his death on March 8, 1930.
Like their counterparts in the United Kingdom, American Supreme Court justices wear dark robes while sitting on the bench. Wigs, on the other hand, are not required, thanks in part to Thomas Jefferson. When Justice William Cushing arrived at the Supreme Court’s first session in 1790, proudly sporting a powdered hairpiece, Jefferson issued a scathing critique of his fashion faux pas: “If we must have peculiar garbs for the judges, I think the gown is the most appropriate. But, for heaven’s sake, discard the monstrous wig, which makes the English judges look like rats peeping through bunches of oakum.”
Traditionally, 20 white quill pens are placed at the four counsel tables each day the Supreme Court is in session. Lawyers who argue before the court often take them home as mementos.
For more than two centuries, a marshal has uttered the traditional call to order during the justices’ entry procession: “Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!” Pronounced “o-yay” or “o-yez,” the thrice-uttered word descends from the Anglo-Norman term for “hear ye.” The marshal then continues, announcing, “All persons having business before the honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the court is now sitting. God save the United States and this honorable court.”