The Supreme Court Building

The massive edifice in which the U.S. Supreme Court convenes has come to symbolize its power and grandeur. However, the Supreme Court Building was not built until the 1930s. Previously, the Court met in various chambers in the U.S. Capitol Building for most of its history. Before the federal government moved to Washington, D.C., the Court met in certain buildings in New York City and Philadelphia, each of which briefly served as the national capital.

Chief Justice William Howard Taft secured authorization for a designated Supreme Court Building in 1929. Although Taft commissioned Cass Gilbert for the project, both men died before it was completed. Taft’s successor, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, coordinated construction with Cass Gilbert, Jr. and John R. Rockart. Hughes laid the cornerstone in October 1932, and the Supreme Court Building was completed in 1935. Its classical style blends with other government buildings in the area, such as the U.S. Capitol Building. Three states (Vermont, Georgia, and Alabama) contributed marble to the building, while American quartered white oak provided the wood for offices.

Entering the Court Building

The main entrance of the Supreme Court Building faces the U.S. Capitol Building. In front of the entrance is an oval plaza, which is set a few steps above the street. A flight of steps with marble statues on each side leads from the plaza to the entrance with its imposing marble columns. The inscription “Equal Justice Under Law” appears on the architrave above the entrance. (The architrave above the east entrance is inscribed “Justice the Guardian of Liberty.”) Several sculptural groups surround the entrance, including portrayals of Chief Justices Taft, Hughes, and John Marshall.

The bronze doors at the top of the west steps contain panels sculpted with scenes from the history of law, extending back to ancient times and medieval Britain. Once a visitor opens these doors, they will enter the Great Hall. This contains busts of the former Chief Justices along the side walls. The east end of the Great Hall leads to the Court Chamber.

Court Chamber

The Court Chamber contains marble from Italy, Spain, and Algeria. The Justices sit behind a winged bench with the Clerk of the Court to the left of the bench and the Marshal of the Court to the right. The Clerk performs largely administrative functions, while the Marshal assists with maintenance and security, in addition to keeping time during oral arguments. When they are not presenting arguments, attorneys in a case sit at the tables in front of the bench. They use the lectern in the center to address the Justices.

Guests of the Justices sit in red benches on the right of the Court Chamber, while officers of the Court and visiting dignitaries occupy the black chairs in front of the benches. Another set of red benches extends along the left side of the Court Chamber. These are for the media.

Main Floor

In addition to the Court Chamber, the main floor of the Court Building contains the main Conference Room, where the Justices meet to discuss and vote on cases. The Robing Room is where they don their traditional black robes. The Justices may have originally worn colorful robes, but they changed to black robes by the early 19th century. The main floor also contains the chambers of each Justice, the offices of the Marshal of the Court, an office for the U.S. Solicitor General, a Lawyers’ Lounge, offices for law clerks and judicial assistants, and two large conference rooms.

Other Floors

The Court Building has three additional floors. The ground floor contains the offices of the Clerk of the Court, the press room, police facilities, and various other offices. The second floor contains the dining room of the Justices and the office of the Reporter of Decisions, who is a statutory officer under the direction of the Court. The Reporter of Decisions is responsible for compiling and publishing opinions in the official volumes known as the U.S. Reports, and they provide the syllabus at the beginning of each decision. The third floor largely consists of the Supreme Court Library.