This neoclassical building looks far older than it really is. The Supreme Court met in odd rooms in the Capitol (you'll see one if you tour the Capitol) until the early '30s, when this structure was completed. Tours start at 9am when the court is not in session. After the usual security checks, a set number of visitors will be ushered into the actual court chambers. A guide will discuss the workings of the court, plus the symbolism of the sculptures and friezes above. The decorations are of lawgivers throughout time: Confucious, Hammurabi, Mohammed, and Moses, among others.
By sheer serendipity, the Thursday we choose to tour the court was the day of a very rare opinion. Usually the court hears cases October through April and delivers decisions the each of the first Mondays in June. This day (June 23, 2005), the court delivered opinions on six cases, the most important being the last the New London "Eminent Domain" decision. We were excited to have secured a seat inside, along with all the suits. The session was set to start at 10am. A few minutes before, a buzzer sounded, which indicated the justices were ready. Then a gavel sounded with the words, "ALL RISE! THE SUPREME COURT OF THE UNDITED STATES IS NOW IN SESSION!" Believe me, you hop to it and rise. An officer of the court reads out a statement that sounds like it’s from Merry Old England--"Oyes, Oyes, all parties having petitions for the Court approach and be heard, God protect the United States of America and this Supreme Court!" The Justices then enter through some deep-red curtains and take their seats.
My observations: With the exception of Scalia and Ginsberg, they are all white-haired and elderly-looking. Chief Justice Rehnquist's voice, even with a mike, was weak and scratchy. He is rumored to have throat cancer. While one justice read an opinion, the others would rock in their chairs, whisper to one another, and even yawn (Justice Thomas). They seemed oblivious to the audience's presence. Nevertheless, the court does have "whips" to keep the audience in shape. One lady in my row leaned her head on the shoulder of her male partner and was quickly scolded by a "whip." After opinions were finished, they were available in printed form in the press room outside, a neat souvenir we picked up.
Downstairs there are exhibits, a short film, and portraits of past justices. Be sure to take a gander before the court opens, or afterwards at the sculptured doors at the entrance. Each door is bronze, weighs 6.5 TONS, and is decorated with famous law scenes. When the court is open for sessions or tours, these giant works of art slide into pockets in the sides and are not visible. Pamphlets describing the court building and workings are given out free of charge. The closest Metro stop is Capitol South.