Five Fascinating Traditions Religiously Observed in the US Supreme Court

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If you take a video of yourself with some friends while checking out tourist attractions in town, and you post the video online, it might go viral. But it surely won’t grab headlines across the country.

Unless you’re someone going by the name of Noah Newkirk. And the video is taken inside the US Supreme Court while an oral argument is going on, and the justices are in attendance.

“I arise on behalf of the vast majority of the people of the United States who believe that money is not speech, corporations are not people, and that our democracy should not be for sale to the highest bidder.” The shaky video showed Noah speaking from the audience in a loud but composed voice, interrupting the proceedings. “Overturn Citizens United.”

A member of a protest group 99Rise, Noah was asking the highest court to denounce its 2010 ruling in Citizens United, which gives corporations the green light to spend as much as they please to support or oppose the candidacy of politicians.  Another member of the protesting group supposedly took the covert video.

For his actions, the L.A. native was promptly hustled out of the courtroom by security personnel, while the hidden camera still rolled secretly. He was then charged under a federal law that prohibits “harangue or oration, or utter loud, threatening, or abusive language in the Supreme Court Building or grounds.”

So between speaking his sentiments before the justices and posting it online for the world to see, Noah and his group already violated two (2) traditions sacredly observed inside the Marble Palace: (1) you can’t bring your cameras or recording devices with you, and (2) you can’t just interrupt the Court while it’s in session.

Curiously, there are other equally curious Supreme Court traditions worth noting. Lest you risk running into stern-looking Bench security personnel yourselves.

1. Unique Announcement

Whenever the Court resumes session, everybody present is expected to be on their feet. But instead of the usual introduction: “All rise . . .  this court is now in session.  The Honorable Judge (name) presiding,” the justices of the highest court are introduced in a way unique to the Court.

When the justices have taken their place, they would remain on their feet as a marshal intones:

The Honorable Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable 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!

Oyez, you’ve got that right. The marshal chants that every time. The Oyez Project tells us that the word is pronounced as “o-yay” or “o-yez” or “o-yes” in three successions to formally announce the opening of the court. It traces its origin from Middle English and can safely be translated as “hear ye.”

The justices will then be seated according to status. The chief justice appropriately takes the middle chair while the rest of the justices take their place, with the most senior of them seating directly beside the chief justice.

2. Conference Handshake

Before justices would get down to work in the courtroom or in private conferences, they would shake hands with each other, all nine of them.  Dubbed as the famous “Conference Handshake,” this tradition began during the time of Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller. Which means, this has been around for the past 120 years.

Chief Justice Fuller established the handshake to remind justices that their differences of opinion should not interfere with their main business. So in a way, this tradition is aimed at creating harmony despite the inevitability of diversity.

Modern judges, moreover, have evolved views of conference handshakes. Justice Clarence Thomas, for instance, views handshakes between justices as proof of their genuine intentions and a form of “civility”. He said:

I think the handshake, whether you’re in sports or church or other activities, it means something . . . We can sense when somebody’s phony and don’t mean. These people in this room are genuine. That’s warm and professional. There’s always a handshake before we go on the bench, when we see each other — when we haven’t for the first time during the day we always make sure we shake hands whether it’s in public of private. There’s sort of sense of courtesy and decency and civility that’s a part of it.

3. Black Robes for Justices

From a previous post, we have learned why our judges and justices dress the way they do: black robes minus the wig.

When the “mourning” Englishmen seized the New World, they brought with them their culture and tradition. Including their black robes for judges, an obvious testament of their bereavement upon the death of a beloved monarch.

Yet the Founding Father and the first Chief Justice of the country’s last resort, John Jay, chose to wear colorful robes when reporting to office. Apparently, so too were his colleagues. They would don robes colored with salmon and black.

It was only in the 1800s that justices started wearing black robes which have persisted today. The late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, though, modified his own robe so that it had four gold stripes on each arm but was otherwise the same as his fellow justices’. However, the current Chief Justice, John Roberts, has gone back to wearing the plain black robe. And it seems it’s going to stick.

4. White Quill Pens

When you receive a white quill pen from the US Supreme Court, you ought to congratulate yourself. Certainly, you’ve reached another milestone in your legal career.

You see, such white quill pens are only given by the Court to lawyers who have argued before the Bench. Considered as one of the oldest traditions of the court, the quill pens were actually used as ink pens back then. They are placed snugly on the lawyer’s table while the Court is in session.

Arguing before the highest court is any lawyer’s dream and certainly a high point of their career. Therefore, foregoing the pen’s practical use, any lawyer appearing before the Marble Palace would bring it home as an important memorabilia of sort.

And it’s no easy feat to be appearing in the highest court in the first place. To be admitted to the Bar of the Supreme Court, the applicant must have practiced in the highest court of the state for a considerable period, and must be of good moral and professional character.

5. All-Male Circle

There are customs and traditions that are meant — or more precisely — doomed to be broken by the demands of the time and a change in social judgment. And if there is one Supreme Court tradition that is doomed to be broken even on the first day, it’s this unsaid, unwritten tradition of nominating and appointing an all-male cast to the highest post of the country’s judicial branch.

This tradition stood for almost 200 years, until Sandra Day O’Connor shattered this to pieces 1981 when she became the first woman justice on the Bench. Her nomination paved the way for more women justices. With the emergence of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, the judiciary has never achieved such gender diversity in all its history.

This factor and so much more have accounted to the increased number of female judges in the lower courts of the country. Which is a most welcome development in our judiciary.