While controversial both internationally and domestically in terms of policies abroad and at home, there is no denying that Washington, D.C. is a world class place. With its abundance of classical Greek architecture, perhaps no city in the world more closely resembles what ancient Athens looked like when the Parthenon was built nearly 2,500 years ago. Only London surpasses America’s capital with the quality of its free museums, and not by much. For Americans, Washington’s museums and monuments spark nationalistic pride, but search deeper and the city itself frequently asks you to philosophize on the roles of government and our own duties to society. Aside from the Capital building itself, a visit to the US Supreme Court, to view 9 of the world’s most powerful seats, should leave you with much to contemplate.
As one of the three main branches of the US government, the 9 presidentially appointed and congressionally approved lifetime members of America’s highest court deliberate and decide on landmark cases that profoundly impact American lives. The Supreme Court ended segregation in American schools in the 1960’s, paved the way for legalized abortions and even decided an American election, when in 2000 they voted 5-4 to stop the Florida recount, making George W. Bush the US president in Bush vs. Gore. In recent years the court has allowed infinite money into US elections through political action committees and just ruled that corporations have religious rights and can deny providing certain health coverage to their employees, like birth control, in a tight 5-4 decision in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby. While we typically don’t get into politics on this blog, it’s become clear that the Supreme Court is generally driven by big business, and the haves can more freely impose their beliefs on the have nots.
Aside from being in a beautiful building of immense power, one of the most special things about visiting the US Supreme Court is that its a place you won’t see on television. The few members of the press that are allowed to cover US Supreme Court sessions aren’t allowed to have any video or audio equipment. So media have nothing more than pen and paper or drawing equipment. During major cases, there will typically be an artists rendition of any important moment during the trial.
Scoring tickets to a US Supreme Court case is tricky business. First you have to write your local Congressman expressing interest in a specific amendment, many months in advance. You’ll then receive tickets to a case dealing with the amendment you requested, but you need to arrive in the wee hours of the morning and wait hours if you want to spend the entire day in the courtroom. Arrive late and you’ll only have 3 minutes in one of the rotating spectator seats, but at least you’ll get a taste of the Supreme Court in action (or Clarence Thomas sleeping and Antonin Scalia scowling because he’s still breathing).
Before visiting the Supreme Court know that you’re going to go through tight security screening, equal to airport security even when the court isn’t in session. So for some, this means leaving your guns at home or in your car. Cameras are allowed, and you can take photos of the courtroom from the hallway, but not once your inside, even during a lecture tour. Snap a photo while inside the courtroom and you’ll be escorted out.
While impressive and thought provoking to be inside the court, the lecturer dumbed the experience down by asking questions like “name your favorite Supreme Court Justice and I’ll tell you where they sit.” The lecture lasted 30 minutes and she took the time to answer two of our questions, the first from an older lady who had earlier stated her favorite judge was Chief Justice John Roberts. For the second question my hand was passed up for a 12 year old boy who had previously remarked that he learned in school that the judges were voted in by the American people. To quote George W. Bush, “Is the children learning?”