In honor of the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, I’m reprinting this article I wrote back in 2013 when I had the opportunity to meet Justice Scalia during my trip to be sworn in to the United States Supreme Court. This is an edited version, with certain other memories that were called to my attention after the fact added in. A variation on it can be found in my first book, Mismatched Shoes and Upside Down Pizza.
I recently had the opportunity to be sworn in to practice in front of the United States Supreme Court. This was, as you can imagine, a supremely (ha ha) cool experience. I went with a small group from the Georgia Association for Women Lawyers and the group had arranged some super-cool-super-secret insider tours and privileges. We had breakfast in a room formerly known as the “women’s dining room”, but once Sandra Day O’Connor joined the bench it had to be renamed the “spouse’s dining room”, which is a much less poetic name, and, to be honest, it was still decorated in a very feminine way. It even had a private potty — that’s how VIP we were. After the swearing in, Justice Antonin Scalia met with us for a little bit and told us that Justice Ginsburg’s husband was a fantastic cook, but, and I am quoting verbatim here, “Ruth can’t boil water.” Of course, when he was telling us about the room we were in, he mistakenly said it was called the “Women’s dining room” until Justice Ginsburg was appointed. This gave my friend Shira the opportunity to correct him and have him admit he was wrong. Shira is equal parts horrified by this and proud of it. In any event, she has a story that will last her the rest of her life. Plus, Justice Scalia isn’t really taller than me. That’s the kind of stuff you can’t learn on the regular tour.
During the swearing in we were seated so close to the bench where the Justices sat that I could have high fived them all. We heard three decisions being handed down, including a decision about Monsanto soybeans I have since seen about 75 billion headlines about. When my name was called to be sworn in, Chief Justice Roberts made actual eye contact with me and smiled and nodded a greeting. Squeeeeeee!!!! This is as cool as it gets in nerdland. I felt like a 10 year old at a Justin Bieber concert.
Naturally, I wandered around the parts of the building I was allowed in for quite some time before and after the swearing in. There were lots and lots of portraits, and I took my picture next to lots of them, as if somehow having a picture of myself next to realistic oil paintings of Sandra Day O’Connor and Louis Brandeis and Thurgood Marshall would allow their glow of greatness to penetrate my skin. Some of the displays were informative, like the ones explaining who each of the carved figures in the courtroom represented, and some were just, well, cool. Like the plexiglass-encased chair John Marshall sat in. And yes, I’m enough of a nerd to think of His Honor’s Brilliant Heiney sitting on that very cushion contemplating the impact of Marbury v. Madison throughout the ages.
My favorite display, however, was the one I saw on the way out. What caught my eye was a small glass bowl. I looked in it, expecting to see a description of how Oliver Wendell Holmes ate a dish of vanilla ice cream out of this bowl after he came up with “falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic” and the phrase “clear and present danger.” Nope. The whole display, about the size and shape of your average kitchen table, was a tribute to the woman who had run the Supreme Court cafeteria for many decades. The bowl, and the glass next to it, were examples of the dishes used while she was in charge of the kitchen. Upon further inspection, I saw a thank you note from Potter Stewart thanking her for a cake she baked; the recipes for Tomato Basil Soup and Kansas Pups; and a menu from the 1930s, right after the building was opened. Oh, and a diagram for cutting up a round cake depending upon how many people you were serving.
So me being me, I overthought the whole thing. I get that all the great names I have mentioned above get all the glory. I get that the unsung heroes of the world are the people like this woman, who make a difficult day better by providing us with comfort food and nourishment, and whose many kindnesses make the rest of it bearable and, well, possible. Goodness knows that I am fully aware that I and all the lawyers in my office are 100% replaceable, but our support staff is not. So in principle, I’m not opposed to honoring this woman in the way that — or even more than some of — the Supreme Court Justices are honored in the building.
But think about this: someone got the idea for this project. Probably she was about to retire, and she was a much beloved figure amongst the staff and they wanted to honor her. A kind gesture, to be sure. But we’re talking about the government here. The FEDERAL government. So you know this is what happened: The idea occurred to someone, and it was discussed. A committee was formed. Debate was had, and designs were rejected, and eventually they came up with the plans, including schematic drawings, miniature models, and a materials list. This led to a detailed budget request, which was submitted to the budget office, which, I would imagine, sent it on to Congress, who, after all, ultimately allocates the federal budget. Once the budget item was approved, there had to be bids for the construction thereof, because the Government can’t just open up the yellow pages or do business with a phone call to a trusted former contractor. Eventually it was put together and installed, no doubt with a small ceremony involving cups of punch and brownies.
All of which is teensytiny potatoes when you compare it to the vast federal budget and the myriad of boondoggles contained therein. But since I had to complain for three years before the public elementary school would/could install a cheap clock in the media center’s conference room, I had to wonder. In the end, it is all me overthinking anyway, because I probably made up for the shortfall and then some by the inflated price of the cookbook I just had to buy full of Justice Ginsburg’s husband’s recipes. I also took a picture of the tomato basil soup recipe. I’ll let you know how it turns out.
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Lori B. Duff is an award-winning author who practices law on the side. Her latest book, “If You Did What I Asked in the First Place” was awarded the Gold Medal for humor in the Foreword INDIES awards in 2019. You can follow her on Twitter at @LoriBDuff and on Facebook. For more blogs written by Lori, click here. For more information about Lori in general, click here. If you want Lori to do your writing for you, click here. If you want Lori to help you market your book, click here.