A Taste of SCOTUS Food Traditions

A Taste of SCOTUS Food Traditions

While much is written about the Supreme Court’s decisions and their justices, there are also concerted efforts to record their incredibly interesting food traditions.

In 2016, the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. hosted an hour-long discussion on the topic, featuring Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court Historical Society Publications Director Claire Cushman and Supreme Court Curator Catherine Fitts.

In her opening remarks, Cushman set the tone by describing how on a cold night in February 1790 after the Supreme Court’s first session adjourned, the justices went to a tavern in lower Manhattan, New York, to eat and toast President George Washington and the new national judiciary. Since then, says Cushman, the justices have found ways to come together and share meals, enhancing cordiality and cooperation.

During the era of Justice John Marshall, who presided over the court from 1801-1835, the court session was two months long. The justices left their wives and families behind and temporarily lived in a boarding house in Washington, D.C. that Justice Marshall had arranged. He wanted his fellow justices to live and dine together in order to build a fraternal bond and ensure the court spoke in one voice. At that time, all the decisions were unanimous, and he wrote all the opinions. Eventually, the justices left to live with their families in the city, thereby breaking up the boarding house arrangement. Interestingly, thereafter, dissent began to appear in the court’s decisions.

Justice Ginsburg shared the different types of food that modern-day justices would bring to court. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor used to bring beef jerky made on her family’s ranch. Justice Kennedy brought wine for special occasions. She, herself, brought pastries from New York. Many of the justices also have food traditions with their clerks, in which they eat together in or out of the office and sometimes at their justice’s home.

In 1935, the court finally got its own building. Chief Justice Taft was in charge of the building commission. One of the requirements was that there would not only be a cafeteria for the public and attorneys, but also a cafeteria and separate dining room for the justices.

Also up for discussion were the particular lunch habits of each justice. Cushman found that they fall into two categories: healthy eaters, like Justice Louis Brandeis who brought a sandwich of whole wheat bread with fresh spinach inside, and those whose prefer richer foods, like Justice Harlan Fiske Stone, who loved French cheese and wine. In fact, his wife used to send a platter of cheese for the justice’s lunch.

The court also has a tradition that the most junior justice is in charge of arranging the welcome dinner for the newest justice.

In particula, when the court is in session, many of the justices dine together in their dining room. The justices are careful to steer clear of any controversial topics and usually discuss books they are reading and even sports, which Justice Elena Kagan is an authority on. There are some occasions when the justices will invite guests to dine with them.

Justice Sotomayor shared some of the justices’ eating habits.

“A number of my colleagues order from our cafeteria. I dare say that the chief orders from the cafeteria and he has a salad brought up. Justices Kagan, Breyer and Thomas will vary their lunches. Justices Kennedy and Alito bring food from home. Sometimes I see Sam’s fare and I think, maybe I should eat dinner with him more often, as with Justice Kennedy, because both of their spouses are wonderful cooks. Some of the justices like Justice John Paul Stevens would have a cheese sandwich on white bread with the crust cut off virtually every day that I sat with him for a year.”

The additional morsels of information from this discussion are delightful, and it’s highly recommended viewing for counsel, say, during the lunch hour.

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