Shocking Things You Never Knew About the Supreme Court
Controversial or not, the appointment of a new Supreme Court justice always brings the highest court of the land into the spotlight. There’s public interest in these SCOTUS justices for good reasons. First, an appointment lasts for life, or when the person decides to retire. And second, they decide some of the most contentious, significant court cases in the country.
Did you fall asleep in government class? No worries. Read on to learn all the fascinating things you never knew about the Supreme Court.
1. There are literally no job qualifications
Think you have to serve as a judge before being appointed to the Supreme Court? Think again. Unlike the office of the presidency, there are no age, education, citizenship, or job experience requirements for the Supreme Court. You don’t even need to graduate law school. Of course, the appointment likely won’t be accepted if the person is underqualified. But legally, it could be.
Next: Some cases are less serious than others.
2. Not all Supreme Court cases are serious
Plessy v. Furguson, Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade… many landmark Supreme Court cases have changed the fabric of our nation. But not every Supreme Court case is monumental. For example, in Nix v. Hedden, the Supreme Court classified tomatoes and pickles as “fruit of the vine” rather than supporting the debate over whether these food items were technically fruits or vegetables. Now you know.
Next: SCOTUS used to meet at this unlikely location.
3. They used to convene at bars
While they constructed what later became the Supreme Court Room in 1809, the Supreme Court members had to come up with another venue. Instead of using a benign meeting room or someone’s living room, the justices held meetings at Long’s Tavern in Washington D.C. From 1815-1816, they met at Bell’s Tavern.
Next: Not many women get appointed.
4. Women justices are in the minority
Even though the Supreme Court has been around since 1789, only 112 justices have served on it. Four of those 112 have been women. One person, Sonia Sotomayor, is both a woman and the first ever Latino Supreme Court justice. Only two have been African American and eight have been Jewish.
Next: One female justice fought hard for this tasty perk.
5. They have a frozen yogurt machine
Elena Kagan’s contributions go beyond breaking the Supreme Court status quo of gender; she’s also responsible for getting a frozen yogurt machine installed in the building. During her first year on the court, Joining the cafeteria committee, Kagan made it her mission to get a fro-yo machine. Good news for everyone: She succeeded.
Next: A very small percentage of cases get decided.
6. Not many cases receive decisions
In any given year, between 8,000 and 10,000 cases are added to the Supreme Court docket. But it would be impossible to address them all. That’s why a very small percentage of those requests – usually just 75 to 85 cases, or about 1% — are accepted.
Next: It’s obvious that Supreme Court justices are smart.
7. Supreme Court justices are some of the smartest people around
If you served on the Supreme Court today, it’s likely you graduated from an Ivy League college. Of the nine current Supreme Court justices, four graduated from Harvard University, three from Yale University, and one from Columbia University.
Next: You can tell their status by where they sit.
8. There’s a method to how they sit
It’s not as if the justices play musical chairs while they’re on the bench. The Supreme Court justices sit in order of seniority, with the chief justice taking the place of honor in the center and the senior associate justice on his or her right. The second in seniority sits to the left and the rest alternate right and left based on their level of seniority.
The above photo was taken just after the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia. The black wool crepe is draped over his seat as a sign of respect.
Next: The court is steeped in tradition.
9. Traditions don’t change much
The court location may have moved (it started in New York City and migrated to Philadelphia before reaching the permanent location of Washington), but most of the traditions remain the same. The justices have always worn black robes and placed quill pens on the counsels’ desk when court is in session, even way back in 1789.
Next: The surprising thing about keeping up with court cases
10. You can’t watch court cases on television
Television may have been invented in 1927, but this hasn’t affected the Supreme Court very much. The first televised Supreme Court swearing-in was Sonia Sotomayor’s in 2009. To this day, Supreme Court hearings are never aired on television.
Next: There’s a basketball court.
11. Yes, they have a basketball court
The highest court in the land has a room devoted to another kind of court. Since 1940, justices have practiced shooting hoops on the regulation-sized basketball court on the Supreme Court Building’s top floor. They frequently square off with opponents from the cafeteria, police force, and clerk’s office.
Next: Only one person has served as president and Supreme Court justice.
12. Only one President also served as a Supreme Court Justice
Becoming a Supreme Court justice and serving as the president isn’t impossible, but it is unlikely. In the entire history of the court, only William Howard Taft has successfully risen to both offices. He served as chief justice from 1921 to 1930 and as president from 1909 to 1913.
Next: Blame the lack of wigs on this man.
13. One man did away with those crazy wigs
Picture a high court of law 200 years ago and you likely envision elaborate powdered wigs. The Supreme Court could still involve wigs if not for one man: Thomas Jefferson. He fought hard against the concept of Supreme Court justices donning wigs because he thought it made them look British — a huge affront to TJ.
Next: You’d see their faces in your wallet.
14. Supreme Court justices were once featured on U.S. currency
The U.S. stopped producing $10,000, $5,000, $1,000 and $500 bills in 1969. Before then, the $10,000 bill featured an image of Salmon P. Chase, a Supreme Court Chief Justice appointed by President Lincoln. The $500 bill included an image of John Marshall, one of the most well-known Chief Justices ever. (Marshall appeared on a stamp, too.)
Next: Some justices always found a reason to drink.
15. The Supreme Court justices love drinking (a lot) of wine
In 2015, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg fell asleep during President Obama’s State of the Union address due to the copious amount of wine the justices enjoyed beforehand. “I wasn’t 100% sober,” she told BBC. The justices always drink wine together before the annual address, with their spouses organizing the get-together.
The justices used to share meals and drinks in a Supreme Court boarding house. In the early 1800s, they employed a drinking rule — you could drink wine if it was raining outside — but Chief Justice John Marshall often said, “Somewhere in our broad jurisdiction it must surely be raining.”
Next: The time an argument between justices went too far
16. The justices don’t always get along
Certain cases create a hostile environment for the Supreme Court justices and their staff. During the George Bush/Al Gore post-election recount dispute, one clerk pushed another into the Court’s fountains. Many of the staff were still drunk from a party they’d attended the evening prior, and they all expressed outrage about the recount. “Alcohol made a contentious environment even more volatile,” explains Jeffrey Toobin, author of The Nine, which gives a behind-the-scenes look at the Supreme Court.
Next: They have serious security.
17. They have their own police force
Unsurprisingly, Supreme Court justices have plenty of enemies. But enough to warrant their own police force? Absolutely. The security force, known as the Supreme Court Police, protect the building and grounds along with the justices themselves. They receive extensive training for the role at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia.
Next: What the Supreme Court did when a justice lost his mind
18. Only one Supreme Court justice has been ousted
One justice, John Rutledge, gradually went crazy after his wife — and mother to their 10 children — died in 1792. While serving on the Supreme Court in 1795, he ranted about how he hoped George Washington dies rather than sign the Jay Treaty. When the Senate tried to kick the former governor of South Carolina off the Supreme Court later that year, the unhinged justice attempted suicide.