Arising out of the despair of the Great Depression in 1935, the gleaming white Supreme Court building was heralded by many as a beacon of hope for a floundering nation. Others grumbled at the frivolity of constructing a "marble palace for nine old men" when millions of people were struggling to provide shelter for their families. More than half a century later, the building is an integral landmark on Capitol Hill, ensconced majestically in the federal arena.
Despite being assigned the highest authority of the Judiciary Branch by the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court of the United States has not always commanded the impressive residence it does today. It moved with the rest of the nation's capital from New York City to Philadelphia, and at last to Washington, D.C. – sharing spaces with other branches of the government along the way. From 1801 to 1935, the Court borrowed various rooms in the United States Capitol Building in order to conduct its business until Chief Justice William Howard Taft, who had served as President of the United States from 1909 to 1913, successfully petitioned Congress for construction funds to build the Court its own home. Cass Gilbert, the leading architect of the project, endeavored to imbue his work with the nobility and prestige owed to the highest court in the nation, contouring his design to the ideals of justice and the law.
Like these ideals, the Court is transcendent. Its towering Corinthian columns soar skyward, flanked on the western entrance by the statues of the Authority of the Law and the Contemplation of Justice. The Great Hall within is a muted chamber where red and blue floral ceilings blossom over an otherwise pure white marble atrium. Nine chairs in the Courtroom, now occupied by a more diverse assembly of Justices than when the Court was originally built, face seats intended for a small audience, often with much at stake. While cases are argued in an intimate setting, many of the decisions made there, such as Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade, reverberate throughout the nation.
Although approximately 8,000 people ask the Court for case review each year, only about 1% of the cases are heard. These arguments are open to the public on a first come, first served basis, but space fills up very early in the day. A "three-minute" line allows visitors to rotate in and out of the Courtroom more quickly. Courtroom lectures, given by docents every hour, offer the opportunity to enter the Courtroom when the Justices are not hearing oral arguments. These programs reveal much about the history of the Supreme Court and its role in the Federal government, but also share some of the Court's personality: though each attorney is allotted only 30 minutes to argue a case, Chief Justice John Roberts allows the speaker to finish his sentence, whereas former Chief Justice William Rehnquist interrupted him immediately. Rotating exhibitions on the lower level of the building further deconstruct the Court's evolving narrative as it continues to aim for the ideals of justice.
- Visiting Hours, in Session:
- The Supreme Court is in session October through April, and visitors may view sessions on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays from 10am to 3pm.
- Seating is limited and given on a first-come, first-serve basis.
- Visiting Hours, not in Session:
- The Supreme Court Building is open throughout the year from 9am to 4:30pm, Monday through Friday.
- Visitors can participate in a variety of educational programs, explore exhibits and see a 25-minute film on the Supreme Court. Lectures in the Courtroom are given every hour on the half-hour, on days that the Court is not in session.
- Metro Stop:
- Red Line to Union Station or Orange Line or Blue Line to Capitol South Station
- Location: First Street NE, Washington, DC
- Phone: 202-479-3000
- Website: www.supremecourtus.gov