The Supreme Court Building has stood at 1 First Street since 1935, a nameless monument in a neighborhood that includes many buildings named after historical figures, like the Thomas Jefferson Building and the James Madison Building, part of the Library of Congress. The building’s lack of identity can sometimes seem to mirror the opaqueness of the institution itself.
Both the edifice, and the court it houses, need a story to help Americans make sense of them.
Congress should name the Supreme Court building after Justice John Marshall Harlan — not in spite of his opposing both Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment before becoming the greatest defender of racial equality in court history, but because of it. He, of all the justices in U.S. history, shows how an intense and unfaltering faith in the Constitution can chart a path to enlightenment.
Harlan is a hero to many, if not most, constitutional lawyers. Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first Black justice on the Supreme Court, is said to have “admired the courage of Harlan more than any justice who has ever sat on the Supreme Court.” In his lowest moments as the lead attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Marshall renewed his courage by reading Harlan’s 1896 dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, the SCOTUS decision allowing segregation in the United States. Marshall believed that Chief Justice Earl Warren’s 1954 opinion in Brown v. Board of Education — the case that overturned Plessy by declaring segregation illegal and that Marshall himself argued — was secondary at best. As Marshall saw it, according to a colleague, “Earl Warren was writing for a unanimous Supreme Court. Harlan was a solitary and lonely figure writing for posterity.”