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How Well Do You Know the Supreme Court?


The Supreme Court of the United States, known simply as the Supreme Court or SCOTUS, is an institution familiar to most Americans – at least in the broadest sense. It has technically existed since the creation of the United States Constitution, in which Article III outlined the basic format of one final court to decide matters not fully resolved by the inferior courts resting underneath. The recent passing of Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has renewed public interest in the history and traditions of this longstanding pillar of American justice. Here are three fascinating facts you may not know about the highest court in the land.

The Supreme Court holds tradition in high regard.

While most of us probably eschew many of the rules and practices of our ancestors as we mature, the Supreme Court justices and the attorneys arguing before them are not afforded that decision. While an attorney arguing before the court does not have the strict wardrobe requirements of the justices, he or she is expected to dress formally in a way that shows high respect for both the proceedings and the participants in the case. The supreme court justices, however, have worn black robes since the early 19th century – and this tradition is still in practice today.

The matters being heard and decided by the United States Supreme Court are serious and often hotly contested. The “judicial handshake” is a tradition dating back to the late 1800s in which each justice shakes hands with every other justice before proceedings start for the day and again before settling down to deliberate. This is to demonstrate and remind the individual decision-makers that though opinions may differ, the search for and delivery of justice to the people is paramount.

It takes a lifetime of studying, diligence and dedication to achieve the honor of being appointed to the Supreme Court, so no wonder it is a bit of a tradition to simply not leave once there.The longest serving justice of the United States Supreme Court is William O. Douglas at over 36 years of service to the court – and it is fairly common for justices to serve for decades before retirement, or to pass away while still on the job.

The Supreme Court houses historic works of art and artifacts.

Throughout the long history of the United States Supreme Court, historical documents, artworks and other artifacts have been collected and preserved for the benefit of later generations. A few interesting examples include: a collection of group photographs dating from 1867, a multitude of documents in the archives, including speeches and personal papers from early justices, as well as portraits and busts of justices past and present. There are even exhibitions made available by the Office of the Curator, so the public can experience a bit of the courtʼs rich history themselves.

The Supreme Court proceedings are normally open to the public.

Due to COVID-19, the court is currently closed to visitors – however, before this unprecedented outbreak, it was possible for any interested party to observe oral arguments at no charge. Seating was based on arrival and availability, so naturally high- profile cases were more difficult to attend. This practice is one of the many ways in which the Supreme Court ensures that justice and the pursuit thereof is accessible and available to the citizenry of the United States.