We write about democracy and public space. Some colleagues find it odd that we describe as ‘democratic’ the spaces of an unelected lifetime tribunal. We see the courts as the oldest democratic institutions, a safeguard of rights and of public influence through the jury system. Individual dignity, equal protection under the law, and equal due process rights are where we find our definition.
Over time, democracy has changed. With change came changes in the location, composition, institutional reach and power of the Court. It expanded its calendar and has a more powerful docket. Circuit duties changed. The Court went from occasionally-sitting body to permanently-sitting. And as it evolved from upstairs tenant to “basement relation” to having a home of its own, it grew in symbolism, substantive power, and became cloaked in mystery like Karnak’s ancient priests.
The homes of the Court can be divided into three periods: Tenancy during the establishment of the Republic; adaptation in DC from 1800 until 1935; and institutional independence of space from 1935 forward.
The early Court made its home in three prominent quarters — the old Royal Market in lower Manhattan, and then the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chamber in Independence Hall and then Philadelphia County Building from 1791 to 1799. This first location echoed the early local courthouse arrangements throughout the U.S. The latter two were formal governing structures, built in the Georgian /Federal style which defines the revolutionary era.
The movement of government to Washington brought along the Court, but it had no home despite Peter L’Enfant’s designation of a ‘Judiciary Square’ in DC’s masterplan, no courthouse accompanied. The Court took up rooms in the Senate wing, until Latrobe’s redesign of the Senate chamber resulted in the creation of an intimate basement courtroom and cloaking room for the Court. The Court moved into the “Old Senate Chamber” in 1861 after the new Senate chamber was completed. The justices otherwise largely worked from home, relying on a messenger system to circulate opinion drafts.
The consequence was a cloistered brotherhood, not unlike a small town law practice.
By 1925, Chief Justice William Howard Taft, was agitating for a building for the Court, and succeeded in the getting Congress to act, hiring Cass GIlbert as architect. Gilbert’s design reflected a conservatism displayed by many late 19th century architects from the City Beautiful movement (which influenced the McMillan Plan for D.C.). McMillan advantaged Neoclassical and Beaux Arts styles, reflected in Gilbert’s design, an iconic stone edifice in which Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes described the court as “black-robed beetles in the Temple of Karnak.” The structure defied emerging Art Deco, Bauhaus, Organic and International Modernist styles.
But it nonetheless changed the Court, and succeeded in creating a public space for protest and expression, as we see every first Monday in October. It presented an iconic temple front which accompanied news stories on the Court. It was a fully-defined home, composed of the diversity of spaces required by a fully functioning civic institution — ritual spaces, civic spaces, and circulation spaces — and also an ability to define its perimeter. Movement of the justices from home to a stone palace, and a change of entry into the court from public processional through the Capitol to an emergence from behind great curtains built a sense of mystery and distance, stage-shaped by the structure itself.