An update from Tim S., a sophomore majoring in political science and history and minoring in public policy and international affairs:
Imagine that you’ve made it to the big time. Your plaintiff or defendant has gone from appellate court to district court, and now stands before the honorable Supreme Court, where as an attorney you’re amidst your oral argument, and the questions are coming hot and heavy. As one of the nine justices grills you with queries that they already know the answer to, another member of the bench summons a clerk from “offstage” and hands them a sheet of paper that they give a glance to before running off to fill the order.
For a moment you ponder at what Justice Blackmun was requesting. Perhaps he was looking for a case to be taken down from the Court library upstairs so he could consult it? Or maybe he was asking for some prep work to be done on a different case he was going to work on after the court session today.
He had to have been writing because there was something urgent that needed doing, right? Well…
As it turns out, at least for Justice Harry A. Blackmun, sometimes the matters that prove most pressing aren’t what you’d think would be of such concern to a brother of the Court. Yet I think we can all relate to being in a drafty room and wanting to knock up the thermostat a few notches.
What if instead of handing the note to a clerk from the sides, there’s a note that circulates down the bench hitting the most and least senior justices, and there’s a growing sense of alarm among the nine that seems to permeate the chamber? Then there must be something more relevant to the matter at hand that’s monopolizing their attention?
I guess this one is a bit more excusable…
This one deserves a bit of a backstory. Justice Potter Stewart was a huge baseball fan, and during the ’73 NLCS between the Cincinnati Reds and New York Mets, he had asked that his clerical staff bring him periodic score updates by note to the bench as he was hearing cases. Of course, it’s during the fifth and final game of the series that Vice President Agnew decides to toss in the towel and leave Richard Nixon out to dry. So while Stewart is receiving the play by play, he gets this tidbit of information that quickly disseminates through the court.
Yes, the justices circulated memos down the bench pertaining to the actual matter at hand. At least somewhat.
Each one of these brief dozen words have very little applicability when it comes to the actual study of the supreme court jurisprudence or doctrinal thought. It just wouldn’t be possible to fit in a grand elaboration of the finer points of originalism or strict scrutiny. These bench memos are just that: brief blurbs.
Yet I love these little glimpses just as much as I enjoy delving into opinions and detailed conference notes. It proves what I think may often get obscured by the concept of the court; even though these men and women form the highest court in the nation, they are still human. They’re people that enjoy goofing around, have hobbies outside reading case files and we can run into on the street (or in one student’s case, the cafeteria.) We should afford them respect for their positions and work for our nation, but we shouldn’t elevate them into figures of the Roman pantheon. They’re only our court.
And in case you wondered if there were any more bench memos, here’s a peek at a few more.