Touring the Court Building

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

The main entrance to the Supreme Court building is on the west side, facing the United States Capitol. A few low steps lead up to the 100-foot-wide oval plaza in front of the building. Flanking these steps is a pair of marble candelabra with carved panels on their square bases depicting Justice, holding a sword and scales, and The Three Fates, weaving the thread of life. On either side of the plaza are fountains, flagpoles, and benches.

The bronze flagpole bases are created with symbolic designs of the scales and sword, the book, the mask and torch, the pen and mace, and the four elements: air, earth, fire, and water.

On either side of the main steps are seated marble figures. These large statues are the work of sculptor James Earle Fraser. On the left is a female figure, the Contemplation of Justice. On the right is a male figure, the Guardian or Authority of Law.

Sixteen marble columns at the main west entrance support the pediment. On the architrave above is incised "Equal Justice Under Law." Capping the entrance is a sculptured group by Robert Aitken, representing Liberty Enthroned, guarded by Order and Authority. On either side are groups of three figures depicting Council and Research, which Aitken modeled after several prominent individuals concerned with the law or the creation of the Supreme Court Building. At the left are Chief Justice Taft as a youth, Secretary of State Elihu Root, and the architect Cass Gilbert. Seated on the right are Chief Justice Hughes, the sculptor, Aitken, and Chief Justice Marshall as a young man.

Too often, visitors do not see the corresponding pediment and columns on the east side. Here the sculpture group is by Herman A. McNeil, and the marble figures represent great lawgivers, Moses, Confucius, and Solon, flanked by symbolic groups representing Means of Enforcing the Law and Tempering Justice with Functions of the Supreme Court. The architrave bears the legend: "Justice, the Guardian of Liberty."

One can enter the building through the opened bronze doors of the west front, each of which weighs six and one-half tons and slides into a wall recess. The door panels, sculpted by John Donnelly, Jr., depict historic scenes in the development of law: the trial scene from the shield of Achilles, as described in the Iliad; a Roman praetor publishing an edict; Julian and a pupil; Justinian publishing the Corpus Juris; King John sealing the Magna Carta; the Chancellor, publishing the first Statute of Westminister; Lord Coke barring King James from sitting as a Judge; and Chief Justice Marshall and Justice Story.

The main corridor is known as the Great Hall. At each side, double rows of monolithic marble columns rise to a coffered ceiling. Busts of all former Chief Justices are set alternately in niches and on marble pedestals along the side walls. The frieze is decorated with medallion profiles of lawgivers and heraldic devices.

At the east end of the Great Hall, oak doors open into the Court Chamber. This dignified room measures 82 by 91 feet and has a 44-foot ceiling. Its 24 columns are Old Coventry Quarry Siena marble from Liguria, Italy; its walls and friezes are of Ivory Vein marble from Alicante, Spain; and its floor borders are Italian and African marble.

The raised Bench behind which the Justices sit during sessions, as well as other furniture in the Courtroom, are mahogany. The Bench was altered in 1972 from a straight-line to a "winged" shape to provide sight and sound advantages over the original design.

At the left of the Bench is the Clerk of the Court's desk. The Clerk is responsible for the administration of the Court's dockets and argument calendars, the supervision of the admission of attorneys to the Supreme Court Bar, and other related activities. To the right is the desk of the Marshal of the Court. The Marshal is the timekeeper of Court sessions, signaling the lawyer by white and red lights as to time limits. The Marshal's responsibilities include the maintenance and security of the building and serving as the Court's building manager.

The attorneys arguing cases before the Court occupy the tables in front of the Bench. When it is their turn to argue, they address the Bench from the lectern in the center. A bronze railing divides the public section from that reserved for the Supreme Court Bar.

Representatives of the press are seated in the red benches along the left side of the Courtroom. The red benches on the right are reserved for guests of the Justices. The black chairs in front of those benches are for the officer of the Court and visiting dignitaries.

Overhead, along all four sides of the Chamber, are sculpted marble panels, the work of Adolph A. Weinman:

  • Directly above the Bench are two central figures, depicting Majesty of the Law and Power of Government. The group at the far left represents Safeguard of the Rights of the People, and Genii of Wisdom and Statecraft. The far right group represents the Defense of Human Rights.

  • To the right is a procession of historical lawgivers including: Menes, Hammurabi, Moses, Solomon, Lycurgus, Solon, Draco, Confucius, and Augustus. They are flanked by figures symbolizing Fame and History.

  • To the left are historical lawgivers including Napoleon, John Marshall, William Blackstone, Hugo Grotius, Saint Louis, King John, Charlemagne, Mohammed, and Justinian.

Figures representing Liberty and Peace and Philosophy appear at either end of the frieze.

  • Symbolized on the back wall frieze is Justice with the winged female figure of Divine Inspiration, flanked by Wisdom and Truth. At the far left the Powers of Good are shown, representing Security, Harmony, Peace, Charity, and Defense of Virtue. At the far right the Powers of Evil are represented by Corruption, Slander, Deceit, and Despotic Power.

The main floor is largely occupied by the Justices' Chambers; offices for law clerks and secretaries; the large, formal East and West Conference Rooms; the offices of the Marshal; an office for the Solicitor General; the lawyers'lounge; and the private conference room and robing room of the Justices. This office space surrounds four courtyards, each with a central fountain.

Most of the second floor is devoted to office space including the offices of the Reporter of Decisions and the Legal Office. The Justices'library reading room and the Justices'dining room are also located here.

The library occupies the third floor and has a collection of more than 450,000 volumes. To meet the informational needs of the Court, librarians draw on electronic retrieval systems and their microform collection in addition to books. The library's main reading room is paneled in hand-carved oak. The wood carving here, as throughout the building, is the work of the Matthews Brothers.

The ground floor is devoted to offices and public services, including the offices of the Clerk of the Court, the offices of the Administrative Assistant to the Chief Justice, security headquarters, the Public Information office and Press Room, the Curator's office and the Personnel office. On this floor, visitors can view one of the two marble spiral staircases. Each ascends five stories and is supported only by overlapping steps and by their extensions into the wall.

Adapted from The Supreme Court of the United States, courtesy of the Supreme Court Historical Society.

  • Subjects:
    Architecture, Judges and Courts